William Gibson, archaeologist

Earlier this year, in cold January morning commutes, I finally read William Gibson’s masterpiece trilogy. If you know me personally, this may sound ironic, because I dig geek culture quite a bit. Still, I’m a slow reader and I never had a chance to read the three books before. Which was good, actually, because I could enjoy them deeply, without the kind of teenage infatuation that is quickly gone ‒ and most importantly because I could read the original books, instead of a translation: I don’t think 15-year old myself could read English prose, not Gibson’s prose at least, that easily.

I couldn’t help several moments of excitement for the frequent glimpses of archaeology along the chapters. This could be a very naive observation, and maybe there are countless critical studies that I don’t know of, dealing with the role of archaeology in the Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s work in general. Perhaps it’s touching for me because I deal with Late Antiquity, that is the closest thing to a dystopian future that ever happened in the ancient world, at least as we see it with abundance of useless objects and places from the past centuries of grandeur. Living among ruins of once beautiful buildings, living at the edge of society in abandoned places, reusing what was discarded in piles, black markets, spirituality: it’s all so late antique. Of course the plot of the Sprawl trilogy is a contemporary canon, and the characters are post-contemporary projections of a (very correctly) imagined future, but the setting is, to me, evoking of a world narrative that I could embrace easily if I had to write fiction about the periods I study.

Count Zero is filled with archaeology, of course especially the Marly chapters. Towards the end it gets more explicit, but it’s there in almost all chapters and it has something to do with the abundance of adjectives, the care for details in little objects. Mona Lisa overdrive is totally transparent about it, since the first pages of Angie Mitchell on the beach:

The house crouched, like its neighbors, on fragments of ruined foundations, and her walks along the beach sometimes involved attempts at archaeological fantasy. She tried to imagine a past for the place, other houses, other voices.

– William Gibson. Mona Lisa Overdrive, p. 35.

But really, you just have to follow Molly along the maze of the Straylight Villa in Neuromancer to realize it’s a powerful theme of all the Sprawl trilogy.

The Japanese concept of gomi, that pervades Kumiko’s view of Britain and the art of Rubin in the Winter Market, is another powerful tool for material culture studies, at least if we have to find a pop dimension where our studies survive beyond the inevitable end of academia.

Being a journal editor is hard

I’ve been serving as co-editor of the Journal of Open Archaeology Data (JOAD) for more than one year now, when I joined Victoria Yorke-Edwards in the role. It has been my first time in an editorial role for a journal. I am learning a lot, and the first thing I learned is that being a journal editor is hard and takes time, effort, self-esteem. I’ve been thinking about writing down a few thoughts for months now, and today’s post by Melissa Terras about “un-scholarly peer review practices […] and predatory open access publishing mechanisms” was an unavoidable inspiration (go and read her post).

Some things are peculiar of JOAD, such as the need to ensure data quality at a technical level: often, though, improvements on the technical side will reflect substantially on the general quality of the data paper. Things that may seem easily understood, like using CSV for tabular data instead of PDF, or describing the physical units of each column / variable. Often, archaeology datasets related to PhD research are not forged in highly standardised database systems, so there may be small inconsistencies in how the same record is referenced in various tables. In my experience so far, reviewers will look at data quality even more than at the paper itself, which is a good sign of assessing the “fitness for reuse” of a dataset.

The data paper: you have to try authoring one before you get a good understanding of how a good data paper is written and structured. Authors seem to prefer terse and minimal descriptions of the methods used to create their dataset, giving many passages for granted. The JOAD data paper template is a good guide to structuring a data paper and to the minimum metadata that is required, but we have seen authors relying almost exclusively on the default sub-headings. I often point reviewers and authors to some published JOAD papers that I find particularly good, but the advice isn’t always heeded. It’s true, the data paper is a rather new and still unstable concept of the digital publishing era: Internet Archaeology has been publishing some beautiful data papers,and I like to think there is mutual inspiration in this regard. Data papers should be a temporary step towards open archaeology data as default, and continuous open peer review as the norm for improving the global quality of our knowledge, wiki-like. However, data papers without open data are pointless: choose a good license for your data and stick with that.

Peer review is the most crucial and exhausting activity: as editors, we have to give a first evaluation of the paper based on the journal scope and then proceed to find at least two reviewers. This requires having a broad knowledge of ongoing research in archaeology and related disciplines, including very specific sub-fields of study ‒ our list of available reviewers is quite long now but there’s always some unknown territory to explore, for this asking other colleagues for help and suggestions is vital. Still, there is a sense of inadequacy, a variation on the theme of impostor syndrome, when you have a hard time finding a good reviewer, someone who will provide the authors with positive and constructive criticism, becoming truly part of the editorial process. I am sorry for the fact that our current publication system doesn’t allow for the inclusion of both the reviewers’ names and their commentary  ‒ that’s the best way to provide readers with an immediate overview of the potential of what they are about to read, and a very effective rewarding system for reviewers themselves (I keep a list of all peer reviews I’m doing but that doesn’t seem as satisfying). Peer review at JOAD is not double blind, and I think often it would be ineffective and useless to anonymise a dataset and a paper, in a discipline so territorial that everyone knows who is working where. It is incredibly difficult to get reviews in a timely manner, and while some of our reviewers are perfect machines, others keep us (editors and authors) waiting for weeks after the agreed deadline is over. I understand this, of course, being too often on the other side of the fence. I’m always a little hesitant to send e-mail reminders in such cases, partly because I don’t like receiving them, but being an annoyance is kind of necessary in this case. The reviews are generally remarkable in their quality (at least compared to previous editorial experience I had), quite long and honest: if something isn’t quite right, it has to be pointed out very clearly. As an editor, I have to read the paper, look at the dataset, find reviewers, wait for reviews, solicit reviews, read reviews and sometimes have a conversation with reviewers, if something is their comments are clear and their phrasing/language is acceptable (an adversarial, harsh review must never be accepted, even when formally correct). All this is very time consuming, and since the journal (co)editor is an unpaid role at JOAD and other overlay journals at Ubiquity Press (perhaps obvious, perhaps not!) , usually this means procrastinating: summing the impostor syndrome dose from criticising the review provided by a more experienced colleague with the impostor syndrome dose from being always late on editorial deadlines yields frustration. Lots. Of. Frustration. When you see me tweet about a new data paper published at JOAD, it’s not an act of deluded self-promotion, but rather a liberatory moment of achievement. All this may sound naive to experienced practitioners of peer review, especially to those into academic careers. I know, and I still would like to see a more transparent discussion of how peer review should work (not on StackExchange, preferably).

JOAD is Open Access. It’s the true Open Access, not to differentiate between gold and green (a dead debate, it seems) but between two radically different outputs. JOAD is openly licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution license and we require that all datasets are released under open licenses so readers know that they can download, reuse, incorporate published data in their new research. There is no “freely available only in PDF”, each article is primarily presented as native HTML and can be obtained in other formats (including PDF, EPUB). We could do better, sure ‒ for example, provide the ability to interact directly with the dataset instead of just providing a link to the repository ‒ but I think we will be giving more freedom to authors in the future. Publication costs are covered by Article Processing Charges, 100 £, that will be paid by the authors’ institutions: in case this is not possible, the fee will be waived. Ubiquity Press is involved in some of the most important current Open Access initiatives, such as the Open Library of Humanities and most importantly does a wide range of good things to ensure research integrity from article submission to … many years in the future.

You may have received an e-mail from me with an invite to contribute to JOAD, either by submitting an article or giving your availability as a reviewer ‒ or you may receive it in the next few weeks. Here, you had a chance to learn what goes on behind the scenes at JOAD.

Political leaders are not human beings

The problem with satire and much political commentary is that politicians, and leaders particularly, are treated like human beings, with their own spoken language and experience and ideas, whereas a less naive view could acknowledge they are more a condensation of economic and lobby agendas, brought forward on a mid-term scale with fixed objectives. At least that seems to explain the trajectory of successful leaders and successful parties, like Berlusconi and lately Renzi. One may simplistically call them puppets for large groups of less visible people who are not directly involved with politics, from rich entrepreneurs to CFO of the financial sector and high-ranking civil servants. It’s certainly more nuanced and way deeper than that, though.

GQB 2015, day 9: wrap up, iterate

Friday 17th July is the last day at work in this short GQB 2015 field campaign. I’m still a bit exhausted from the return trip to Rethymno, but most importantly I’m very satisfied with the exchange of ideas about various topics (Early Byzantine fortifications, water supply systems, pottery, exploitation of natural and agricultural resources) that we had.

Since my main task here was to work on the analysis of ceramic contexts, I just continued my writing of text and R source code as in the past days. In the late afternoon we left to pay a short visit to the village of Panagia where we found an old water fountain that is depicted in a 100-years old photograph. It’s strange, photographs seem to tell true stories, so direct ‒ whereas in fact they’re a paradigmatic form of mediation. Sometimes, when you need to get a better understanding of an object, it’s useful to look at it from different angles, at different scales, alone or in its natural context, under a microscope or in your bare hands. I think that’s what I’m trying to do with the ceramic contexts from the Byzantine District of Gortyna: it’s not always easy and of course it’s not always working because I lack the archaeological, statistical, petrographic, drawing skills that would be needed to make this “prism” fully working. However, I am convinced that the result is worth the trade-offs, and there will be room for improvement of the details at a later stage. For now, I just go on iterating, half artificial intelligence algorithm and half craftsman.

GQB 2015, day 8: DynByzCrete, οι πρωτοβυζαντινοί οικισμοί της Κρήτης

On 16th July we’re out of the Mesara to join a study seminar about the Early Byzantine settlements of Crete, organised by the Institute of Mediterranean Studies (FORTH-IMS) in Rethymno as conclusion to the DynByzCrete research project led by Christina Tsigonaki and Apostolos Sarris. I was really happy to meet other colleagues I’ve met before in various parts of Europe: Kayt Armstrong, Anastasia Yangaki, Gianluca Cantoro. Yesterday I posted the summary of my talk, apart from the conclusions.

I had the privilege of being the last speaker, and taking advantage of the fact that Anastasia Yangaki had provided a detailed overview of ceramic consumption and production in Crete from the 4th to the 9th century, I could point to some specific issues in how we date archaeological contexts with pottery and most importanly in how we prioritise ceramic studies. Ceramic specialists are a rare species, and until now we have failed to provide the means for other archaeologists to quickly identify characteristic type finds of the Early Byzantine period, with sufficient detail to avoid very generic chronologies like “5th-7th” and “8th-9th”, that are highly problematic. We also have a responsibility for the fact that studies and publications of ceramic finds are always lagging behind fieldwork, because 1) there is little selection of significant, well-dated stratigraphic contexts 2) and the study and publication have been for too long done by separating ceramic productions that were looked at separately by hyper-specialists, rather than looking at contexts as our atomic unit. Therefore, it has been impossible to provide the quantified ceramic data that are needed for the type of analytical work that it envisaged by the DynByzCrete project – and we should admit that this data will be unavailable for a long time. As a thought experiment, we could stop doing fieldwork for 25 years and dedicate most of our efforts to the study of all significant ceramic contexts from recent rescue archaeology.

If we agree that there is a potential for extracting information about social dynamics from pottery, can we also agree that provenance studies based on standardised archaeometric procedures are only one of many ways that this can be done? We know very little of the actual manufacturing of most pottery types, of the material culture that permeates their making and usage. So, taking a broader view at the DynByzCrete project, while the environmental determinism behind some of the geospatial analysis needs to leave room for the complexity of Byzantine societies (plural), it is clear that we are at a turning point in the way we look at Early Byzantine Crete, and that’s because we are starting to consider the island in its entirety instead of focusing on a single settlement, no matter how large or important. In this respect, regional surveys don’t seem to provide a qualitative advantage over prolonged excavations – and their multi-period focus is an opportunity to deal with longue durée patterns but also a rather discomforting exercise in oversimplification of changes in historical periods. Pulling an amazing variety of data, that are mostly already available and published, stress-test the obvious and non-obvious patterns of interaction (travel time by horse/donkey among known episcopal cities? Social networks of elite members as known from lead seals and written sources and epigraphy and likely connections to luxury items?) is the best way to stop repeating the same dull research questions over and over.

How can we move forward? These are difficult times, for foreign research projects and especially for Greek institutions. It seems unlikely that we will be able to work more, with more resources, on this and other related topics of Cretan history. Thus, our first aim should be to make our research more sustainable (no matter how much the term is abused): publish on the Web, encourage horizontal and vertical exchange of skills and knowledge among institutions, focus on research outputs that are reusable and continuously upgraded (and perhaps kill interim reports).

GQB 2015, day 7: Gortyna in the 8th century through a ceramic lens

On 16th July we’re headed to Rethymno for a workshop on Byzantine cities in Crete. Our participation was a last minute deal but I thought it would be useful to provide an overview on the entire city of Gortys, not limited to the GQB area, from the point of view of a ceramic specialist. What follows is a short summary of my talk. Tomorrow I will post a summary of the workshop and some conclusions about my own talk.

At Gortys, there is a recognisable occupation phase in the 8th century: we have evidence in the Pretorio, the Byzantine Houses and the Byzantine Quarter, the Pythion, the Mitropolis basilica, the Agora, possibly the Acropolis and even some rural sites such as the small farm of Orthipetra in the Mitropolianos valley and Chalara near Festos. In short, almost everywhere we’ve been excavating in the past 20 years we found evidence later than the 7th century, even without accounting for the prolonged use of some ceramic items.

Therefore our research question should not be whether the city is still alive in the 8th century but how we understand the life in Gortys by means of archaeological indicators such as ceramic finds.

In the past few years, we have collectively published ceramic and numismatic evidence that contradicts the traditional date of 670 AD for an earthquake – pushing some 50-60 years later a possible catastrophic event (some publications are shy about this, though). When we speak of the 8th century in Gortys it is useful to distinguish into a “long 7th century” that lasts until this event and the remaining decades of the 8th century, according to both the ceramic and numismatic evidence. The period after this event is usually mentioned as “VIII e IX secolo” mainly because we have to accomodate for the 826-829 AD date from the written sources about the “Arab” conquest of Crete. I’ll leave a discussion of the 9th century for a next occasion, but the same approach can be used.

Part of our issues with the 8th century derive from the impact that earlier works like Gortina II or Gortina V had on the following studies, with their typological approach. It is only recently that we have collectively started focusing on contexts as atomic units of study, at least in some cases.

The main ceramic indicators we have are:

  • Globular amphorae
  • Sovradipinta bizantina
  • Late Mediterranean fine wares
  • Cooking wares
  • Glazed wares
  • Chafing dishes
  • Oil lamps

Urban areas

The Pretorio, Byzantine Houses, Byzantine Quarter and Pythion are best considered as a single area, that had its main focus on the “Strada Nord” which crossed the urban area. Lots of excavations here!

The Mitropolis basilica is the most important religious area of the city. Recent excavations on the outer part of the absidal area have given important evidence.

The Agora was excavated in the 1990s but only recently published. Apart from a significant amount of Medieval material, including Byzantine amphorae, there is a deposit (“C”) dated from this period, possibly from the same destructive event seen elsewhere in Gortys.

The Acropolis was excavated in the 1960s and saw only a small intervention in 2003. It took a few decades to realise that some of the decorated pottery identified as Minoan was in fact Byzantine. Without a reevaluation of the material, we are left with a weak basis to analyse the place that must have been the seat of the civil/military power from the late 7th to the 9th century, and only the occupation is certain, with architectural remains and at least one coin.

Main ceramic indicators

Globular amphorae are well known but on their own they provide little chronological detail. However, their recurring association with other indicators that have a more tight chronology is very interesting. Their source is commonly indicated as either Cretan or Aegean: we still lack a precise indication in this regard. Their abundance in this period all around Gortys, unparalleled by other amphora types, indicates that they were used primarily as a storage container, to stockpile liquids (wine?) in huge quantities – as much as 750 liters just in one building. Other amphorae that are quite numerous in this period are LRA 5/6 from Palestine and the Nile Delta region, and the LRA7 in some areas of the city.

The Sovradipinta bizantina is of limited interest as a general indicator for Crete, because it only circulates in the immediate vicinity of Gortys and only rarely found outside the Mesara. Its production starts at the end of the 6th century and goes on into the 7th and 8th century, apparently without any significant distinction in typology or decoration. Again, it is difficult to use this indicator alone to point to an 8th century date, even though ceramic evidence from the Praetorium points to a different chronology, mostly in the late 7th and 8th century. One thing is sure: the Sovradipinta bizantina was never meant to be a replacement for missing imports, since most of it is on closed forms like drinking cups, jugs, etc. that do not occur in the imported fine wares. Rather, we see decoration occurring on the formal repertoire of the local plain wares.

Traditionally, the end of trade in Mediterranean fine wares is dated at the end of the 7th century, to coincide at the very last with the Arab conquest of Carthage in 698. However, several authors agree that some productions could continue to be exported for some time in the 8th century, such as:

  • the late African Red Slip D3 / D4, form 107 and 109 described by Bonifay;
  • Late Roman D / Cypriot Red Slip, form 9B described by Watson;
  • Egyptian Red Slip wares? We seem to have a consistent presence of Aswan ware, a production that is little known outside Egypt and is dated to to 7th century.

In general, cooking pots of this period are frequently bag-shaped, in coarser, more fragile fabrics. Cooking pots made on the slow-wheel appear sporadically, like a paradigmatic example of simplified ceramic production or even a comeback of domestic modes of production – at the same time they challenge our stereotyped view of pottery as typology and require a technological study that goes beyond traditional archaeometric provenance analysis. It is difficult to tell whether there were different cooking habits since most publications lack the level of detail that is needed, such as which parts of the cooking pot have traces of fire exposure, which have traces of dipper / κουτάλα, etc.

Glazed wares (the “Glazed White Ware” series 1) are the most recognisable finds of the period. While the coarser glazed cooking pots date already from the mid-7th in Constantinople, their fine counterparts seem slightly later according to the studies of Hayes. Some 9th century examples were already known since the 1980s in Gortys, but recently we have been finding more examples including the beautiful 8th century chafing dish decorated with fish and palm tree. Other known examples from Crete are from Pseira and Itanos. They could be interpreted as luxury items, but as with the imported wares we should be cautious to make an equation between archaeological rarity and actual social/economic value, since this production is very rare all over the Byzantine Empire.

Chafing dishes / σαλτσάρια come also in coarse fabrics, at least in two separate contexts from the BQ and the Agora. Since we have so few examples of this type, it is useful to see that the culinary habits linked to this new type of cooking vessel are not limited to glazed dishes (that could easily be gifts or decorative items). There’s room for discussing the fact that this habit appears in Gortys at the same time as other important centres of the Byzantine Empire, with simplistic explanations like the military or new civil authorities.

Finally, oil lamps. The “juglet” lamps are well known, especially type I. It seems that type II could be more widespread in the later period. Lamps in this period are less standardised, but in Gortys we don’t see hand-made lamps of the simpler open types. A separate discussion is needed to take into account the impact of glass on lighting of interior spaces, and we still don’t have collected the necessary data from our excavated material.

Conclusions

I’d like to leave my conclusions blank for tomorrow’s post.

The cover image is an African Red Slip sherd, form Hayes 109B, in D3 fabric, photographed through a magnifying lens (GQB CER 746.2).

GQB 2015, day 6: the 7th day milestone

14th July was again crucial for the Greek crisis, notwithstanding any historical recurrence of revolutionary events where the powerful elite was overthrown without mercy.

Here in Gortys, the good news is that the pump engine was repaired, boosting our morale, but the day was a mixed bag and my attention was split among tasks like the write-up of Attività 99 (the latest occupation phase in GQB), a further look at the GONA finds that need drawings and photographs, and some GIS maintenance for Elisa. Since I started counting from 0, day 6 means that I succeeded in blogging every day for one week: as any blogger knows, this takes a lot of effort, discipline and sometimes you have to accept that there is nothing truly exciting to write about and that’s OK. At the same time, this is different from a “log of activities”, despite the etymology.

In the afternoon we had a frank debate about the sustainability of archaeology abroad, particularly of Italian archaeology, in the light of the archaic funding schemes that are available to Italian research institutions. The conundrum is with the role of archaeological research not merely as a pure academic activity, but as a first step that most local institutions rightfully believe should lead to a contextualised preservation of ancient remains. On the other hand, there is zero incentive on the academic side to pursue this kind of “extended” path: when your monograph or journal article gets published, it makes no difference whether the archaeological remains you based research on are rotting among the vegetation or are part of accessible heritage paths for the public. Does your university understand this problem? Does a coordinated effort at the country-level help? In Greece, all activity from foreign research bodies is supposed to go through the filter of archaeological schools, like the BSA, the EFA, the SAIA, the ASCSA, etc. These are venerable institutions more than 100 years old, they play the same role but have many differences in the size of their staff, the source of their funding, the amount of involvement in each project they coordinate. Crucially, and luckily I think, in the past 10 years the Greek ephorates made extremely clear demands for preservation efforts before further excavation could be undertaken – with the assumption that excavation must be the first step towards conservation and there cannot be conservation without excavation. In theory, this puts survey-based research project at an advantage, since the main cost associated with the post-research phase is storage of finds (which has its own problems but is less expensive than in situ conservation of building remains). In the end, we could only agree that the archaeological schools have a hard time keeping the pace of changes in both the funding of research and the needs of local society (as expressed through both political movements and civil society). The relationship with higher education seems even more problematic: after all I am here, a civil servant from the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Tourism, doing archaeology-related fieldwork thanks to a “historical” link between the Italian Soprintendenze at home and the Italian School at Athens, but this link pre-dates by many decades the creation of doctorates in Italy (in the early 1980s) and now largely obsolete.

Late in the afternoon, I wanted to reenact one of the photographs that illustrate my piece in Archeostorie, the “unconventional manual of real life archaeology” that I dedicated to Archaeology without borders taking inspiration from my personal heroes like Bill Caraher and Colleen Morgan.