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Blog: Addressing the Divide Between Archaeology and Classics

'Addressing the Divide' is a new series of columns that looks at the ways in which the modern field of Classics was constructed and then explores ways to identify, modify, or simply abolish the lines between fields in order to embrace broader ideas of what Classics was, is, and could be. This month, we look at the divide between classical archaeology and philology by speaking with archaeologists Sheira Cohen, Eric Kansa, Kristina Killgrove, James Newhard, and Alison Rittershaus

Every January the Society for Classical Studies holds an annual meeting in conjunction with the Archaeological Institute of America. While there are joint panels held between the SCS and AIA, there still remains a visible divide between members of the two societies. Philologists generally attend SCS papers focused on textual or literary analysis, while I most often see solely field archaeologists and ancient historians in attendance at AIA panels that report on new excavation finds or provide analysis of archaeological data from a certain site. There is certainly a high degree of crossover, particularly within panels focused on the fields of epigraphy, ancient history, gender, or topography, but my experience has been that while classical philologists have long expected archaeologists to learn (and be tested on) their skills in Greek and Latin in order to be seen as a true Classicist, philologists have not, in turn, been expected to be fluently versed in material culture, archaeological methods, or art history in order to be verified as a "true Classicist.”

The divide between archaeology and classical philology has a long history rooted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. James Newhard, Chair of Classics and Director of the Center for Historical Landscapes at the College of Charleston, spoke with me extensively about the history of the divide:

I was trained with the idea of Altertumswissenschaft – that the only way to understand the past was through a critical analysis of all the available data. These, days, the term is often viewed as shorthand for classical philology, but if you go back to the construct as espoused by Welcker [1784-1868], Boeckh [1785-1867], and Müller [1797-1840], all the available data meant everything they had. In the early 19th century, certainly most of what they had was a huge pile of texts and centuries of analysis. What they had for the material remains was, well…Winckelmann [1717-1768]. Still it is that sense of critical analysis and synthetic approach to data that Basil Gildersleeve brought back from Goettingen. So, the idea of Altertumswissenschaft came to America, heavy on the philology, and as time progressed, we get an increased emphasis on the texts, and archaeology stagnates into a Winckelmann-like sense of antiquarianism that only gets put on steroids when we enter the 20th century and the construct of cultural-historical archaeology. From its beginning, we get the sense that classical scholarship is a 3-legged stool with Philology, History, and Archaeology. We all know who the red-headed step-child is in this story.

Classics' 3-legged stool is, as Newhard points out, an uneven piece of academic furniture. Texts are most often given primacy over archaeological remains or bioarchaeological data in Classics, a fact seen most starkly in graduate admissions rubrics and curriculum. Requirements for graduate admissions to Classics departments, as well as the extensive reading lists required of MA and PhD candidates for their exams in progress to degree, can be fatal barriers to entry and success in the field of Classics. Language requirements often exclude diverse applicants who have not had the opportunity to study Greek or Latin, but who may have extensive training in archaeology or art history. Conversely, applicants to Classics graduate programs are only rarely expected to have ever done any active field work, completed a course on archaeological lab methods, or to be able to show competency in pivotal archaeological approaches such as seriation dating, GIS mapping, or remote sensing.


Figure 1: Johann Joachim Winckelmann (circa 1755). Winckelmann is often called the "father of art history" (Image via Wikimedia, but the painting now reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). 

In a column on this blog, Joy Connolly recently discussed ways to work around and support graduate students with less language training applying to the field through grants and by modifying entry requirements. And yet lowering the language barriers for graduate applicants means little if we don’t also begin to require classical philologists to undertake required courses or credited summer fieldwork in order to learn how material culture is extracted, analyzed, and applied within the field of Classical Archaeology. Although I had taken Latin since high school, I did not fully understand how to interweave material and epigraphic remains into the literary record until I began to excavate at the site of Morgantina in Sicily. It was then that I came to understand that the material does not simply work in service to the literary.

Alison Rittershaus, a graduate student in the interdepartmental program in classical art and archaeology at the University of Michigan, also noted how philologists and archaeologists could better train graduate students, particularly by offering courses that underscore both philology and material culture together as one:

Departments should value co-teaching, especially in introductory classes, in order to draw upon (and show off!) the strengths of multiple faculty members, as well as offer multiple potential paths for students who might wish to take additional related courses. Ideally, co-teachers and guest lecturers should work together to maintain consistency and build upon one another's contributions to the course.

A big part of incorporating and appreciating archaeologists within Classics departments is celebrating the varied methods they bring to the field; methods which provide nuance and depth that allow us to go beyond the limited abilities of the literary record. A good example of this is the work done by Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist and Forbes columnist who has worked with human remains and DNA from Rome, Gabii, and Oplontis:

I am routinely invited to give public talks and keynotes across the country. In speaking with classics professors, particularly philologists, following my talks, I have found that the vast majority of them don't know what information can be learned from human and animal skeletons, pottery, food remains, sewage, metal artifacts, and more because they aren't aware of modern archaeological analytical techniques. Because biochemical techniques in particular (e.g., isotope, trace element, residue, DNA analyses) have become more popular and more inexpensive just in the last two decades, it seems to me that many classicists aren't aware of these advances and therefore are not up to speed on the state of the field in archaeology. All classicists - both students and professionals - should be aware of the techniques that are used to produce data and interpretations about the ancient world. In terms of archaeology, this continuing education could take the form of university courses, short workshops or programs, a reading group, or a regular (free) speaker series at the SCS or through AIA.

Killgrove’s sentiments were echoed by digital humanist and Near Eastern archaeologist Eric Kansa, who often works alongside his wife, zooarchaeologist Sarah Kansa, the current president of the International Council for Archaeozoology (ICAZ): 

One area that I think could use more emphasis is more exposure / appreciation of those aspects of archaeology that have less directly to do with material culture. So, animal bones, human remains, botany, landscape, etc. are all super informative and seem somewhat peripheral in Classical Archaeology. They seem more appreciated in [the study of] prehistory, but I think it can play an invaluable role in Classical studies.

The recent environmental turn within the field of late Roman studies, for instance, relies heavily on archaeological analyses of everything from the newly disclosed DNA from victims of the plague of Justinian to ancient ice cores that show high lead emissions. Ancient historians like Kyle Harper, Kristina Sessa, and Walter Scheidel, as well as medievalists like Monica H. Green, have long engaged with bioarchaeological methods as a necessary part of Classics and Medieval Studies, but not all classical philologists are aware of the high volume of new and exciting archaeological and bioarchaeological material shifting our view of the ancient and late antique Mediterranean.  

As Killgrove and many other archaeologists exemplify, archaeolgists have a lot to contribute to Classics in terms of the contextual understanding texts, but their continuous engagement with the public during and after fieldwork often means they are also uniquely well-trained in outreach as well. One of the first book reviews I ever wrote was for an edited volume called Archaeologists as Activists: Can Archaeologists Change the World? (2011). Archaeologists from Monticello to Petra have extensive training in issues such as cultural heritage repatriation, orientalism, colonialism, and race that philologists have confronted relatively late in the game. The AIA programs in outreach and their extensive dockets of local lectures aimed at the public are incredibly popular. Their expertise in working towards outreach can be seen in the pages of Archaeology magazine and on site, simply speaking to tourists or visitors about what they are doing and how it contributes to the historical record.


Figure 2: Excavators from the University of Michigan's dig at Gabii in 2017 (Image by Sarah E. Bond). 

The onus to mend the divide between philologists and classical archaeologists does not rest on the shoulders of the future generation, but rather on the tenured and tenure-track faculty currently instructing graduate students and shaping the field through our imposition of reading lists and graduate program requirements. Sheira Cohen, a graduate student in the University of Michigan’s interdepartmental program in classical art and archaeology who excavates at the Italian site of Gabii, rightly noted that it is on faculty who shape and impose standards for graduate training in Classics to model the change we wish to see in the field:

It is the job of tenured faculty to engage in meaningful dialogue with their graduate students about these questions in a supportive environment and to listen to their concerns and needs and, most importantly, translate that into action. It's not fair to ask graduate students to put their career on the line to tell faculty things they already know. It is not fair to ask graduate students to do the labour to make the field more inclusive and interdisciplinary while simultaneously ignoring their recommendations when it actually counts.

A few weeks ago, Mary Beard suggested on her blog that large-scale conferences in Classics like the annual AIA-SCS meeting were perhaps not part of the future of the field. She addressed the fighting, disciplinary divides, and intense debates that occurred this past year in San Diego and asked whether smaller conferences weren’t more likely the future of the field. Somehow, I do still think the macro and the micro-conference have a place in the landscape of Classics and that the annual SCS-AIA meeting serves an important role within the field. As per usual, Dimitri Nakassis, a Late Bronze Age epigrapher and archaeologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, articulated the need for the annual meeting best:

But to me the most important advantage is that it allows for social interaction on a scale that can’t be matched by smaller conferences and at a level of intimacy that can’t be replicated on social media. I don’t mean to say that these annual meetings are perfectly inclusive: of course they aren’t, as all of the recent controversies have shown, and I share Prof. Beard’s horror at the racism of the 2019 SCS (even if neither of us is probably very surprised by it). But the annual meeting brings students, professors, and other members (including avocational members) together into the same social space, and this is not something that other gatherings accomplish.

We can all recognize that a Classics “utopia” is a synthetic ideal which is literally nowhere to be found. I am not saying that all rifts between classical archaeology and philology can be solved at the annual meeting or indeed at all, but those classical philologists lucky enough to attend the annual meeting can make a more concerted effort to walk across the aisle and listen to more AIA talks next year in Washington, D.C., and to practice treating material culture and texts as equals. By extension, I hope we can also treat all Mediterranean archaeologists—from Aegean prehistory to late Roman Mauretania—as Classicists in their own right, without secretly or overtly applying the litmus test of Greek and Latin fluency as the the sole qualifying criterion for being a Classicist. 

An update to the original column posted on June 24, 2019:

Please note that the next planned columns in the "Addressing the Divide" series look at Ancient History and Art History. if you would like to contribute to or write about the divides between Classics and these fields (or others), please email me at Sarah-Bond@uiowa.edu

Header image: “View of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius which began the 23rd of December 1760, and ended the 5th of January 1761, after a drawing taken on the spot by Mr Fabris, when that eruption was in full force.” From William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei (St Andrews rff QE523.V5H3 (SR) under a CC-BY-SA-NC 3.0). 


Sarah E. Bond's picture

Sarah Bond is an associate professor of History at the University of Iowa and chair of the SCS Communication Committee. She writes on Roman law, marginal peoples, and ancient geography, and is an associate editor for the Pleiades Project and Co-PI for the digital Big Ancient Mediterranean (BAM) project. Her first book is: Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean (University of Michigan Press, 2016). You can email her at sarah-bond@uiowa.edu, follow her on Twitter at @SarahEBond, or see her CV at her blog: https://sarahemilybond.com/curriculum-vitae/

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