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kottke.org posts about Jeremy Sabloff

Archaeology of the 99%

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2019

Archaeologists are increasingly looking past the splashy artifacts of ancient elites to seek & find the dwellings and possessions of commoners. For Knowable Magazine (good title), Bob Holmes talked to retired archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff about the Archaeology of the 99%.

Archaeology frequently focused on big buildings and objects owned by elites because they were easier to find and more durable & abundant (elites had money to spend on nice things). But it was also a question of where the funding came from:

Before World War II, archaeological research was funded mostly by museums or wealthy individuals or foundations. They wanted spectacular finds — temples and palaces, not the remains of perishable structures of everyday life. They wanted royal burials, such as King Tut’s tomb, the royal treasures of Ur, great sculpture, murals, beautiful pottery, jade, what have you. They were looking for materials that they could bring back and display in museums.

Then a shift happened:

The makeup of the field changed significantly after World War II, and its practitioners became much more middle class. One reason is there were a lot more jobs available, particularly at state universities. And you started to be able to get grants for fieldwork that wasn’t based on looking for objects or spectacular finds.

And new technology has helped as well:

The richer picture we’re getting of the 100 percent is aided by tools that archaeologists 50 years ago just didn’t have available. In terms of settlement-pattern mapping, one of the huge technical breakthroughs in recent years is remote sensing, particularly LIDAR, where low-flying aircraft or drones send down laser beams and you can see the ground without the trees. You can see stone courses. You can see the remains of houses, causeways, roads, defensive fortifications. That’s going to make the mapping of sites much simpler, particularly in difficult situations like tropical rainforest or a heavily wooded area. We’re able to cover much bigger areas with much greater detail and accuracy than ever before.

I am reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome right now and in the first chapter she touches on what we know about ordinary Romans:

The reasons why we can tell this story in such detail are very simple: the Romans themselves wrote a great deal about it, and a lot of what they wrote has survived. Modern historians often lament how little we can know about some aspects of the ancient world. ‘Just think of what we don’t know about the lives of the poor,’ they complain, ‘or of the perspectives of women.’ This is as anachronistic as it is deceptive. The writers of Roman literature were almost exclusively male; or, at least, very few works by women have come down to us (the autobiography of the emperor Nero’s mother, Agrippina, must count as one of the saddest losses of classical literature). These men were also almost exclusively well off, even though some Roman poets did like to pretend, as poets still occasionally do, that they were starving in garrets. The complaints, however, miss a far more important point.

The single most extraordinary fact about the Roman world is that so much of what the Romans wrote has survived, over two millennia. We have their poetry, letters, essays, speeches and histories, to which I have already referred, but also novels, geographies, satires and reams and reams of technical writing on everything from water engineering to medicine and disease. The survival is largely due to the diligence of medieval monks who transcribed by hand, again and again, what they believed were the most important, or useful, works of classical literature, with a significant but often forgotten contribution from medieval Islamic scholars who translated into Arabic some of the philosophy and scientific material. And thanks to archaeologists who have excavated papyri from the sands and the rubbish dumps of Egypt, wooden writing tablets from Roman military bases in the north of England and eloquent tombstones from all over the empire, we have glimpses of the life and letters of some rather more ordinary inhabitants of the Roman world. We have notes sent home, shopping lists, account books and last messages inscribed on graves. Even if this is a small proportion of what once existed, we have access to more Roman literature — and more Roman writing in general — than any one person could now thoroughly master in the course of a lifetime.