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A Companion to Archaeology
Edited by John Bintliff
Copyright © 2004, 2006 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Classical Archaeology
Ian Morris
The Problem
a different technical language. Classical
archaeologists rarely mentioned even the
most influential works of the 1960s–1970s
archaeological revolution, and prehistorians
returned the compliment. My impression as
a graduate student in Britain in the 1980s
was that most prehistorians thought of classical archaeology as a sad relic, a living
museum of archaeology’s embarrassing
past. Yet in terms of the number of scholars
employed, the size of its audience, its lavish
financial support, and the sheer scale of
academic output, classical archaeology was
stronger than ever. Nearly twenty years later,
this is still the case – so assessing classical
archaeology at the century’s turn is no simple
Consider Figure 14.1, a cartoon by Simon
James published in Paul Bahn’s Archaeology:
AVery Short Introduction (1996), and reproduced in Matthew Johnson’s Archaeological
Theory: An Introduction (1999). This may
make it the most widely seen image of what
classical archaeology is all about. In the
center, labeled ‘‘core,’’ a group of archaeologists fights furiously. Men and women, some
bearded, some barefooted, mostly young,
denounce each other in the vocabulary of
1990s theoretical archaeology: ‘‘processualist reactionary,’’ ‘‘poststructuralist pseud,’’
‘‘burn all neo-Marxist heretics,’’ and even
‘‘phallocrat scum-bag.’’ But to the left, on
My goal in this chapter is simple: to explain
what classical archaeology is. I first present a
simplified account of the classical archaeology of the past two centuries, then discuss
changes since the 1970s. I close with
thoughts on the directions the field is taking
in the new century.
This sounds straightforward, but there is
more to it than meets the eye. In opening his
1984 Sather Lectures, Anthony Snodgrass
Elementary grammar might suggest that
‘‘classical archaeology’’ is a subdiscipline
that forms an integral part of one subject –
archaeology – and has especially close links
with another – classics. But elementary
grammar, here as in some other instances, is
profoundly misleading. (Snodgrass 1987: 1)
In fact, Snodgrass observed, classical
archaeology in the 1980s had more in
common with classical philology and an unusual kind of art history than with the ferment then taking place in prehistoric
archaeology. Classical archaeologists generally asked different questions than other
archaeologists, used different methods in
the field, attended different conferences,
published in different journals, and wrote in
Ian Morris
Figure 14.1
Archaeological theory in 1988 (cartoon by Simon James).
historical archaeology, are still far more
orientated towards fieldwork, analysis of
texts, and the handling of real evidence.
For example, some archaeologists in Germany, where little attention has been devoted to theory, tend to consider the
theoreticians as eunuchs at an orgy (especially as they are most uncertain to have
any successors). (Bahn 1996: 69–70, 62–3)
the ‘‘periphery,’’ a balding, pipe-smoking
gentleman in an ill-fitting suit wonders
what all the noise is about. He gives his identity away by reading a book called Classical
Archaeology and sitting on a pile of ‘‘CIL,’’
the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a
series of tomes dedicated (for more than a
century) to publishing the text of every
Latin inscription. In front of him is an even
higher pile of Loebs, bilingual editions of
Greek and Latin literary texts. Finally,
cowering off to the right, is an ‘‘irritating
distraction’’: Joe, Josie, and Josie Jr. Public,
looking on in horror as one theoretician
(busy strangling another) yells at them:
‘‘What the hell do you want?’’
Bahn spells out his point:
According to the cartoon, the feuding theoreticians have little to say to the public; but
the classical archaeologist musing on his
stack of CIL speaks to no one at all.
Cultural theorists have taught us that
humor is a complicated thing; and obvious
as the cartoon seems, Johnson reads it differently. Bahn’s ideal archaeologist seems
down-to-earth, blokey, and empirical, while
Johnson’s is apparently one of the eunuchs at
the orgy. He historicizes the cartoon, labeling
it ‘‘Archaeological theory in 1988,’’ and suggesting that it lampoons the
Theoretical archaeology should not be
taken too seriously – it’s easy to laugh at
those who do become obsessed with it: in
fact, it’s essential. The worst part is that so
many of them seem to become grumpy and
bitchy and have forgotten what a great, extravagant, glorious treat it is to be in archaeology . . . Other areas, such as classical or
generally low standard of debate [which]
means that uninformed position statements,
Classical Archaeology
platitudes and ‘‘straw people’’ abound with
very little critical analysis on all sides of the
debate. There is also an assumption that
one’s own position has been intellectually
victorious to the extent that scholars
working in other traditions are mere intellectual dinosaurs or intellectual poseurs
rather than serious archaeologists with
genuine concerns. (Johnson 1999: 182)
the drawing ‘‘No core/periphery: just fragments,’’ but some of his fragments are more
equal than others. The feminists, evolutionists, and technocrats all have their support
groups; the Publics appear to have a happy
home; but the classicist is alone with his pipe
and his books.
What is wrong with this picture? It is a
joke, and like most of the best ones, works
by mistaking a part-truth for the whole
truth. There is something to its representation of classical archaeology, but this is a
huge and varied field. James’ cartoon gives
a false impression, in that classical archaeologists, far from musing contemplatively,
can shout just as loud and hit just as hard
as the best theoreticians, and any classical
archaeologist rash enough to write such a
simplifying essay as this one can only
expect to generate still more noise to wonder
He contrasts this situation with a drawing
of his own, captioned ‘‘Archaeological
theory in 1998’’ (Figure 14.2). Here, the battling theorists have decomposed into three
huddles, happily talking to themselves,
some about Foucault, others about Darwin,
and others still about cultural resource management. The Publics are wandering off, but
the saddest figure is the same pipe-smoking
scholar, still sitting on his CILs, now reading
More Classical Archaeology. Johnson labels
Figure 14.2
Archaeological theory in 1998 (cartoon by Matthew Johnson).
Ian Morris
Even a glance at Nancy de Grummond’s
(1996) Encyclopedia of the History of
Classical Archaeology shows that the field
has had more than its share of colorful characters, but serious analysis of an academic
field must go beyond the wondrous variety of
its denizens. Max Weber, while recognizing
that the basis of all social action is individual,
also saw that some of the most important
parts of society are collectives. To think
about group phenomena, whether labor
movements, religious sects, or academic specialties, we have to agree on what our terms
mean. So Weber developed the notion of the
ideal type. Analyzing a subject like classical
archaeology, composed of the practices of
thousands of individuals who consider themselves or are considered by others to be
classical archaeologists, requires explicit
definitions. A good ideal type advances
understanding, but only does so by leaving
out of consideration many of the empirical
realities of the groups being studied. Weber
historians’ noise, classical archaeologists
looked down on these others with scorn and
slight regard, addressing a higher message to
the more educated families of J. Public.
Classical archaeologists gave themselves the
mission of revitalizing Western art and saving
modernity from itself. Next to this, prehistorians’ activities deserved little attention.
My second argument is that the classical
archaeologists’ role as heroic defenders of
culture began to break up a generation ago.
The world was changing. Prehistorians
started making noise in the 1960s, and a
decade later a small but influential group of
classical archaeologists started taking it seriously, assimilating their own work to what
they heard. They pointed a new way forward,
albeit at the cost of abandoning traditional
claims to superiority. Most classical archaeologists ignored this splinter group even into
the 1990s, but with growing unease.
Third, I suggest that a wholly new kind of
archaeology is taking shape out of the old
classical archaeology, bearing no resemblance to Figure 14.2. The core of this shift
is the collapse of the notion that Greeks and
Romans created timeless classics that define
Western civilization. The J. Publics and the
battling theoreticians seem to agree on this,
and as classicists take dialogues with both
groups more seriously, they redefine their
whole enterprise. Figure 14.2 is a representation of how archaeology would have been in
1998 if a particular strain in postprocessualism had won the arguments; but it did not.
Certainly, many archaeological theorists retreated into self-congratulatory encounter
groups, but if anything, factional struggle
intensified, and classical archaeology
became actively involved. As Greek and
Roman archaeology moves away from
being ‘‘classical’’ in the sense I define below,
it joins a broader movement within historical
archaeology, which will increasingly dominate the discussion/fistfight in the twenty-first
century. Overall, classical archaeologists
have not been wondering what all the noise
is. They went from despising it, to listening
to it, to being part of it.
An ideal type is achieved by the one-sided
accentuation of one or more points of view
and by the synthesis of many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally
absent individual phenomena, which are
arranged according to those one-sidedly
emphasized viewpoints into a unified
mental construct. In its conceptual purity,
this mental construct can never be found
empirically in reality. It is a utopia. (Weber
1949: 90)
I set up an ideal type of what I think classical archaeology was in the century after its
institutionalization around 1870. Probably
few archaeologists fitted this model exactly;
only that the model accommodates many of
the attitudes we find in classical archaeologists’ books, letters, and diaries. I conclude
that apart from a brief period in the 1960s
and 1970s, the relationship between classical
archaeology and the rest of archaeology was
different from James’ cartoon. Far from
wondering absent-mindedly about the pre256
Classical Archaeology
territory. Many embrace the Iron Age of the
ninth and earlier eighth centuries; but the
Final Bronze Age is problematic. Few classicists claim the Late Bronze Age as their own,
and the Middle Bronze Age is firmly prehistoric.
Time is complicated by space. Eighthcentury bc Rome belongs to classical
archaeology, but the contemporary Po valley
usually does not. Only in the second century
bc did the Romans conquer this area. Similarly, eighth-century Athens is a classical
subject, but debates (in the current climate,
sometimes fierce) rage over whether eighthcentury Macedonia has more in common
with the Balkans or peninsular Greece.
An archaeologist working on seventhcentury Sparta, or the west coast of Turkey
(planted with Greek cities in the Early Iron
Age), is a classicist, but one working on the
contemporary Assyrian provinces of eastern
Turkey is not. Yet with Alexander’s conquest
of the Middle East by 323 bc, everything up
to Afghanistan can be added to the classical
archaeologist’s territory. But this is even
more complicated, because while most classicists automatically count the Hellenistic
cities of the Middle East as classical, they
seem less certain about non-urban areas.
With the Roman armies’ bloody march
around the Mediterranean from 200 bc
onward, swallowing up Greece, the western
parts of Alexander’s world, and eventually
much of Western Europe, the sphere becomes wider still. By the first century ad,
everything from the Irish Sea to the
Euphrates is the classical archaeologist’s
back yard, and remains so at least until
Constantine I (306–37). We then begin to
move into late antiquity. In the last twenty
years, classicists have reclaimed this as legitimate turf, but the gradual Germanization of
the western empire and the Byzantine transformation of the east mark breaks for most
scholars. Few would take classical archaeology beyond Justinian (527–65), and none
beyond the Arab conquests of the seventh
century. By then we are in a different, early
medieval, world.
A Simple Model of Classical
I begin with a one-sentence definition of
what the traditional practices of classical
archaeology comprise, then unpack it. Classical archaeology has been (1) the study of
ancient Greek and Roman artefacts with the
aim of (2) showing how Graeco-Roman culture was expressed in material terms, (3)
focusing on the connections between Greek
and Roman works of art (4) and Greek and
Latin literary culture.
The study of ancient Greek
and Roman artefacts with
the aim of . . .
‘‘Ancient Greek and Roman’’: the field is
defined in temporal and spatial terms, not
theoretical or methodological ones. But immediately things get complicated. ‘‘Ancient
Greek and Roman’’ is a moving target,
founded on weighty yet largely implicit assumptions.
Probably all classical archaeologists agree
that the ‘‘Archaic’’ period of Greek history,
beginning around 750 bc, falls within their
purview. Most also accept the Greek Early
Iron Age, beginning around 1200 bc. But
many think that the Late Bronze Age (ca.
1600–1200 bc) is not the territory of classical archaeologists; it belongs to prehistorians. Some see Middle Bronze Age Minoans
of early second-millennium Crete as classical, but as we move back into the third
millennium, there are few claimants. And
by the time we get to the Neolithic, there is
virtual unanimity in Western Europe and
North America that we have left classical
archaeology behind. In Greece itself, though,
some scholars see more continuities than differences between the world of Dimini and
that of democratic Athens.
Romanists draw similar boundaries.
According to the Romans’ own stories,
Rome was founded in 753 bc. The Regal
period lasted until 509 bc, and is classicists’
Ian Morris
So, ‘‘ancient Greek and Roman’’ in the first
component of my definition depends on
‘‘Graeco-Roman culture’’ in the second.
Similarly, ‘‘artefacts’’ depends on ‘‘Greek
and Roman works of art’’ in the third component; and all three depend on the fourth,
‘‘Greek and Latin literary culture.’’
dared suggest that modern Europeans were
surpassing the ancients. These were times of
epochal change: by the mid-eighteenth century, some enlightened minds even claimed
that Europeanness counted for more than
Christian identity. In such a context,
Roman literature and the New Testament
did not satisfy everyone as foundation charters, and some radical intellectuals – protoRomantics – looked elsewhere for the origin
of European excellence. Given the debt that
Roman authors expressed to Greece, they
found this source in fifth-century bc Athens.
This was a broad trend, but its principal
author was Winckelmann (1717–68). He
wrote chiefly about Greek sculpture (although it is debatable whether he ever saw
a genuine example), finding here the origin
of a distinctive European spirit. In the nineteenth century, the idea that a dynamic European identity took shape on the slopes of the
Acropolis in the fifth century bc and was
generalized by the Roman Empire won acceptance in the West. This set of ideas, or
‘‘Hellenism’’ (Morris 2000: 41–8), became
the mirror image of what Said (1978) calls
‘‘Orientalism,’’ a vision of the Middle East as
static and degenerate – everything Europe
was not.
Winckelmann made Greek art a tool for
defining European vitality, and over
following generations Westerners tried to revitalize contemporary art by drinking at
the fountain of Europe’s childhood. This encouraged extraordinary scenes, from Lord
Elgin and Choiseul-Gouffier intriguing to
tear statues off the Parthenon, to French,
Bavarian, and English agents chasing a shipload of sculptures from Aegina around the
Mediterranean. But throughout, material
culture was subordinated to philology, the
rigorous study of classical texts. Art illuminated the classical spirit already revealed in
literature, and inspired contemporary artists
to reach the same heights.
In the late nineteenth century an intellectual revolution struck Western Europe and
North America. Germany excepted, most
leading thinkers about antiquity had been
Showing how Graeco-Roman
culture was expressed in
material terms . . .
The movable feast of ancient Greece and
Rome rests on what we mean by GraecoRoman culture. Look up ‘‘classic(al)’’ in any
dictionary: the definition will probably refer
both to cultural productions of timeless relevance and to the culture of ancient Greece
and Rome. Hence the label ‘‘classical’’: these
times and places constitute an exemplary
moment in world history.
This is an old story (I explain my views on
it more fully in Morris 2000: 37–106). The
Germanic warlords who settled Western
Europe from the fourth century ad rarely
distinguished themselves sharply from the
Romans they sometimes fought against, and
when Charlemagne proclaimed himself ruler
of these lands in 800 it made sense for him to
claim to be restoring the Roman Empire. The
Holy Roman Empire kept this idea alive in
central Europe throughout the Middle Ages,
but there was a serious rupture in the fourteenth century. Some Italian thinkers suggested that continuity from Rome no longer
made sense. Rather, a gulf separated modern
man from the ancients. The cutting-edge
scholars of the Renaissance argued that the
present was inferior to antiquity, but proposed that through sustained study of
Roman literature and ruins, the moderns
might appropriate the excellence of the
past, and even improve on it.
Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scholarship and art gave Western educated
European elites a sense of mastery over the
best that had been thought or made in the one
true Christian empire. Inspired by the emergence of organized natural science, some
Classical Archaeology
independent men of letters. But about 1870
the idea of research universities, pioneered
at Göttingen in the 1730s and promoted
all over Germany after 1808, began to take
hold. Governments and rich donors
endowed Professors and surrounded them
with Lecturers, Assistants, and cadres of advanced students learning skills in seminars en
route to professional accreditation.
Here was born the academic framework
we still live with. Classical archaeologists
had to make some big decisions. Where
should they stand in the modern university?
As a free-standing discipline? Associated
with philologists in departments of Classics?
Or with the growing numbers of prehistorians, entering departments of Archaeology
in Europe and of Anthropology in North
In fact, few classical archaeologists
thought very hard about these questions.
The answer was obvious: stay with the classicists. There were good reasons. Classicists
had higher status and funding than anthropologists or prehistorians. Classical philology was arguably the most scientific of
the humanities: German Altertumswissenschaft, the science of antiquity, was a
model to everyone.
But there were other compelling intellectual reasons. Classicists claimed to answer
the burning issue of the Age of Empire: why
Europeans and their white colonists were
superior to the rest of the world. Joining a
Classics department meant a subsidiary role
to philologists, who controlled the texts that
held the answers; but it also meant playing in
the major leagues. Bruce Trigger (1984) characterizes Americanist prehistory in these
years as ‘‘colonialist,’’ justifying the right of
white settlers to displace natives, and European prehistory as ‘‘nationalist,’’ seeking the
origins of specific peoples. But classical
archaeology was ‘‘continentalist,’’ explaining the roots of European civilization as a
Hence the importance of the rolling frontier of classicism described above. The real
classics belonged to Aegean Greece between
700 and 300 bc and Italy between 200 bc and
ad 200. Around these cores extended temporal and spatial tails, going back in some
places to the Bronze Age, and continuing in
others into the sixth century ad. By World
War I the main attitudes and institutions
were in place. They were to survive without
serious challenge for two generations.
Focusing on the connections
between Greek and
Roman works of art . . .
It was generally agreed that not all GraecoRoman objects expressed the classical spirit.
Architecture, sculpture, and painting – in
short, high art – were what mattered. Painted
pottery was debated, but Hamilton’s astute
marketing of his collection in the 1770s established Greek vases as a major medium for
connoisseurs, even if they probably were not
in antiquity (Vickers and Gill 1994).
American prehistorians formerly described the goal of archaeology as understanding the Indian behind the pot, and
then as the system behind the Indian behind
the pot; but in classical archaeology, the pot
itself was the focus. The object here and now
mattered, and what it might do for contemporary artistic taste. The first large excavations, begun at Herculaneum in 1738,
illustrate this. The site was excavated
through tunnels: literally mined for statues.
Work only shifted to Pompeii when the
Herculaneum mines got too dangerous.
Each age gets the field archaeologists it
deserves. Winckelmann criticized these digs
in 1762, begging for attention to architectural context and proper preservation of
wall paintings, and work steadily improved.
But recovering fine art remained the reason
to dig classical sites, and little changed for a
hundred years, when the rigor of classical
philology and rising standards in prehistoric
excavations inspired archaeologists to consider context and stratigraphy. Morelli transformed research at Pompeii in the 1860s, and
within a decade Conze and Curtius did the
same in Greece.
Ian Morris
In the 1880s classical archaeologists began
to see conflicts between scientific excavation
and uplifting public taste. The new ‘‘big
digs’’ generated vast quantities of objects
which artists and the public found uninteresting: tiles, bricks, potsherds, etc. But science demanded that archaeologists treat all
facts seriously. An 1880 newspaper dismissed the objects Furtwängler published
from Olympia, the greatest scientific dig, as
‘‘on the whole merely ancient rubbish, small
objects that were worthless then or single
fragments of larger objects’’ (quoted in
Marchand 1996: 91).
Conceivably, classical archaeologists
could have rejected the focus on high art,
asking new questions (or borrowing prehistorians’ questions) about the ordinary artefacts they found. But the preference for
philology meant this rarely happened. Instead, a successful division of labor emerged.
Most practitioners devoted themselves to
cataloguing data, producing series of
volumes along the same lines as the CILs in
Figure 14.1, listing all known Roman lamps,
Greek coins, etc., divided into categories.
The most extraordinary are Beazley’s catalogues of Archaic and classical Athenian
black and red figure vase painting (Beazley
1942, 1956). Beazley attributed a high proportion of known paintings to artists,
schools, and styles. His astounding achievement dominated the study of vase painting in
the English-speaking world for half a century
(Kurtz 1985). Debates about alternative
methods were muted, and even now, suggesting that Beazley had an implicit theoretical
model (as opposed to simply reacting to
data) provokes denunciations that make the
fight in Figure 14.1 look mild (compare
Whitley 1997 with Oakley 1998, 1999).
By 1900 some classical archaeologists
were paying about as little attention to the
public as the one in Figure 14.1, but most still
saw reaching a large audience as their goal.
Charles Eliot Norton founded the Archaeological Institute of America in 1879, and
tirelessly promoted public appreciation of
classical art. He worried about scientific
archaeology, cautioning the AIA in 1899
that ‘‘a pitfall has opened up before the feet
of the archaeologist . . . there is a risk in the
temptation, which attends the study of every
science, to exalt the discovery of trifling
particulars into an end in itself’’ (Norton
1900: 11). Norton was eager that Americans
should excavate at Delphi in order to bring
back great statues for the Metropolitan
Museum in New York, and as Dyson
(1998: 122–57) shows, the wealth and prestige of the great museums played an enormous part in the early history of American
classical archaeology.
The result of these developments between
the 1870s and 1910s was that classical
archaeologists maintained scientific standards in excavation, publication, and typology, without abandoning their role in
presenting classical art to the public to
redeem the world from the cancer of modernism; and also without challenging the
Hellenist worldview. Throughout the twentieth century, high art dominated the archaeological agenda.
. . . and Greek and Latin literary
‘‘Graeco-Roman civilization’’ was consistently defined through language and literature. The Greek of Sophocles was the
highest form of classicism; to the extent
that other writers fell short of it, they diverged from the core. The Romans built
their high culture through a particular appropriation of the Greek East; the Latin of
Cicero provided a new peak of classicism,
once again with earlier strivings toward it,
and later fallings away. Hellenistic settlers
took Greek to the Near East, and to the
degree that it took root, these areas became
classical. With the gradual failure of the
Hellenistic cities across most of the Middle
East in the third and second centuries bc, and
the disappearance of Greek speakers, the
classical frontier rolled back. But the
Romans then carried Latin into Britain,
Spain, and Africa, classicizing these regions.
Classical Archaeology
A mechanical model of language, ethnicity,
and culture dominated classicists’ thought
(see Hall 1997: 1–16): material culture expressed a preexisting linguistic formation,
classical civilization.
By 1914, classical archaeology was settling into what Thomas Kuhn (1970) called
‘‘normal science,’’ a period of agreement
about the questions, methods, and major
answers. The goal was to communicate to
the world the excellence of classical art,
which illustrated the spirit of GraecoRoman civilization. Some archaeologists excavated, ideally doing big digs at famous
cities, sanctuaries, or cemeteries, producing
museum-worthy art. Architecture, sculpture,
inscriptions, and painted pottery should be
published lavishly, but classical archaeology’s scientific ideals required that a wide
range of artefacts also needed thorough publication, even if no one but other professionals publishing similar materials from their
own sites would read these tomes. Large
scholarly teams pursued these activities, producing knowledge at a density unparalleled
in other archaeologies. However, excavators
rarely strayed outside the public and elite
areas of sites, and entire categories of evidence were ignored. Sieving and flotation
were virtually unknown, and practically no
seeds and bones were recovered. Classicists
who wanted to know what people ate could
read Aristophanes or Juvenal; archaeology
was not about this kind of information.
To sum up: classical archaeologists
worked within a controlling model of
Hellenism which determined their subsidiary
models of how fieldwork, publication, and
interpretation should operate. The notion of
‘‘the classical’’ set archaeologists of the core
periods of Greece and Rome above all
others. North European prehistorians could
tell their publics what had made them
Danish, Germans, or French; and as the
twentieth century wore on, prehistorians
could say more and more about the origins
of humanity. But that did not matter. Classical archaeology was about what was best in
Listening to the Noise
At a high level of abstraction there are certain similarities between classical and prehistoric archaeology in the early twentieth
century. The controlling model was ethnic,
and its working assumption was that archaeological cultures represented ‘‘peoples.’’
But there the similarities ended. Classical
archaeologists were concerned with classical
art in the present, while prehistorians traced
movements and influences among the ancient peoples that the artefacts revealed.
This required different working practices
and publication styles.
The gap was both sociological and intellectual. Hellenism had once been a subversive force. The governments of some German
states in the 1820s feared that classical
education radicalized students through
admiration for Greek freedom and equality;
and Greek democracy was a major weapon
in liberal ideological critiques in Britain until
the 1870s. But by the 1920s Hellenism was a
force for cultural and political conservatism.
Classical archaeology was no longer considered a humanistic science, meeting the
late nineteenth-century challenge of modernism with a combination of socially improving aestheticism and inductive scientific
rationalism. Rather, it was seen as a conservative discipline providing support for the
traditional order, and hence playing an
essential role in preserving intellectual and
social stability. (Dyson 1998: 159)
Classical archaeology was congenial to the
world’s most powerful people, who supported it accordingly. Kaiser Wilhelm II
intervened to help German archaeologists;
Rockefeller donated a million dollars to the
Agora excavations; and Mussolini expropriated downtown Rome to expose the imperial
fora. The classical legacy was ambiguous in
Nazi Germany, given the strength of alternative genealogies from German prehistory
(Marchand 1996: 325–54); but the imperial
Ian Morris
past was unproblematic in Fascist Italy
(Manacorda and Tamassia 1985).
But the gap between classical and prehistoric archaeology before and after World
War II pales into insignificance compared to
their divergence in the 1960s. In North
America and Western Europe ‘‘new’’ or ‘‘processual’’ archaeologists attacked the verities
of culture history, arguing instead for a systemic, ecologically oriented approach, explicit model building, and quantitative testing.
If classical archaeology ever resembled
James’ cartoon, it was in the 1960s and
earlier 1970s. The classical establishment
simply ignored the furious arguments over
the ‘‘new’’ archaeology. In 1971 the ancient
historian Moses Finley argued that ‘‘new’’
archaeology did little to aid social history,
but only in 1982, as the postprocessual critique began in earnest, did Paul Courbin
offer a bad-tempered rebuttal. As Dyson observes, ‘‘New Archaeology . . . would be
middle-aged before most classical archaeologists even noticed it’’ (Dyson 1998: 247–8).
But prehistorians in Greece and Italy certainly noticed the new archaeology. Colin
Renfrew developed a systemic model for
Bronze Aegean Age civilization, later embedding this in a larger narrative of European
prehistory and contributing to processual
theory (Renfrew 1972, 1973, 1984). Similarly, John Bintliff approached the Aegean
Bronze Age from a natural-science perspective, working out toward a larger synthesis
of early European dynamics (Bintliff 1977,
Classical archaeologists might consider
new archaeology as a fad, but in the 1970s
hardly anyone outside Classics departments
agreed. From purveyors of timeless truths,
classical archaeologists had become oldfashioned. The world was changing; in the
age of Biafra, Belfast, and Mylai, the questions new archaeologists asked – about food
supply, demography, and exploitation –
appeared more relevant than glorifying a
unique Western aesthetic and moral superiority that students and many members of the
public no longer felt.
Anders Andrén has shown that most regional forms of historical archaeology have
developed in similar ways. Following initial
interest in ancient art as inspiration for contemporary styles and with using artefacts to
illustrate texts, archaeologists move to social
and economic issues. This happens first in
protohistorical periods, where there are
texts, but not enough to write continuous
histories (Andrén 1998: 107–26). Classical
archaeology conforms precisely. Although
historians of the Greek and Roman core
periods foregrounded social and economic
questions in the 1960s (e.g., Jones 1964;
Finley 1973), it was chiefly archaeologists
of the Early Iron Ages of Greece (e.g., Snodgrass 1977, 1980) and Italy (e.g., Ampolo
et al. 1980, 1984) who took up the new
archaeologists’ lead. They highlighted state
formation, adapting systems theory, neoevolutionism, model-building, and quantitative testing, often via earlier applications in
Bronze Age Aegean studies. Snodgrass provided a manifesto for this new classical
archaeology, arguing:
Once historians extend their interests from
political and military events to social and
economic processes, it is obvious that archaeological evidence can offer them far more;
once Classical archaeologists turn from
the outstanding works of art to the totality
of material products, then history (thus
widely interpreted) will provide them with
a more serviceable framework. (Snodgrass
1980: 13)
Protohistorical archaeologists asking these
questions discovered that field archaeologists had rarely collected the data they
needed, particularly about rural settlement.
There had been large-scale surface surveys
in Greece and Italy since the early 1950s,
but in the 1970s Aegean archaeologists
drew on methods pioneered by American
new archaeologists, with intensive coverage
of transects sampling all the different microenvironments in the survey area, to reconstruct the overall settlement pattern in all
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periods. Not surprisingly, much of the stimulus came from Bronze Age archaeologists
(Renfrew and Wagstaff 1982), but Snodgrass
and Bintliff began their Boeotia survey in the
mid-1970s (Bintliff and Snodgrass 1985);
and Michael Jameson, then best known as
an epigrapher, began the first such survey in
1972 (Jameson et al. 1994).
Surveys undermined classical archaeology’s boundaries in three important ways.
First, the focus moved from the artefact
itself. Excavations needed experts on coarseware and tiles, because science required their
publication; but they were rarely central to
the project. On surveys, by contrast, most
data fell into these categories; and further,
the explicit goal was to move beyond humble
objects to vanished settlement patterns.
Second, serious survey was impossible without soil science (e.g., Bintliff 1977). Classical
archaeology needed new kinds of specialists,
which meant accepting that more than one
kind of education could be appropriate.
Third, surveys could not preserve the same
boundaries around the classical past that
choice of site (or deliberate disregard of
finds of the wrong periods) allowed to excavators. Surveys led by Bronze Age archaeologists generated data forcing social
historians to rethink classical settlement patterns, agriculture, and economics; and
archaeologists who had begun working on
ancient Greece found themselves immersed
in Byzantine and Turkish history (e.g.,
Bintliff 1996, 1997; Cherry et al. 1991;
Davis 1991, 1998). There were experiments
in the 1970s in classical archaeology graduate programs in the US, notably at Boston
and Indiana universities and the universities
of Minnesota and Pennsylvania (Dyson
1998: 251–4), aimed at opening the field to
new kinds of classical archaeologists. But
these programs lacked the resources or prestige of older centers of classical archaeology
like Princeton and Oxford.
The emergence of postprocessual archaeology in the early 1980s made the noise of
the theoreticians’ fights even more interesting to many classical archaeologists. Ancient
historians were already asking questions
about ideology and power, and postprocessual ideas gave classical archaeologists an
opportunity to join the debates. Cambridge
University, where Finley, Snodgrass, and
Renfrew all held chairs, where Hodder was
initiating the postprocessual critique, and
where resources and connections were
strong, became the center for exploring the
intersections of these traditions. Snodgrass
encouraged his students in this, concentrating particularly on the Early Iron Age (e.g.,
Morris 1987; Morgan 1990; Whitley 1991;
Osborne 1996; Hall 1997; Shanks 1999),
but also entering the central periods of
Greek (Osborne 1985, 1987; Gallant 1991)
and Roman history (Alcock 1993; Woolf
The postprocessual turn also opened up
Anglo-American classical archaeology to approaches pioneered in France in the most
traditional of all fields, Athenian vase
painting. Inspired by Vernant’s development
of structuralism and psychoanalysis in Greek
literary criticism, a ‘‘Paris School’’ of art history emerged (e.g., Bérard 1989; Lissarrague
1990), which impacted classical art history
in other countries (e.g., Sourvinou-Inwood
1991; Elsner 1994, 1998; Hoffman 1997;
Stewart 1997; Osborne 1998).
Classical archaeology has changed dramatically since the 1960s, but we should
keep events in perspective. After the 13th
International Congress of Classical Archaeology in Berlin in 1988, John Boardman
(Beazley’s successor at Oxford) commented:
‘‘Many of the papers treated subjects in a
traditional way, trying to make sense of
new discoveries, and making better sense of
some of the long familiar, including some
radical revisions . . . There were no signs of
anxiety. Should there have been?’’ After consideration, he answered no (Boardman 1988:
795). The organizers of the 15th Congress, in
Amsterdam in 1998, clearly disagreed. In the
conference Program, Herman Brijder suggested: ‘‘On the threshold of the third millennium basic questions arise: where is Classical
Archaeology heading, how ‘Classical’ is it
Ian Morris
other disciplines. If this happens, I believe
that classical archaeology will still be found
to be an exceptional discipline; but exceptional in its capacity to contribute to the
fulfillment of new aims rather than in its
fidelity to old ones. (Snodgrass 1987: 3)
still, what remains of the once strong ties
1998: 5). This surely points to a serious
change during the 1990s. But Rasmus
Brandt, President of the Associazione Internazionale di Archeologia Classica, felt
forced to conclude:
He was surely right that the opportunities
presented by the shake-up of the last twenty
years outweigh the losses following the
crumbling of the old paradigm, and the outlines of a new classical archaeology are
emerging. By 1900 classical archaeologists
had earned a safe niche by surrendering to
philologists the right to tell the story of the
Graeco-Roman world. As this position lost
credibility from the 1980s, classical archaeologists began repeopling the field, using material culture to reinterpret antiquity more
broadly. One manifestation has been the colonization of the core of art history by poststructuralist questions; another the turn
toward economic, social, and cultural questions. By bringing people back in, classical
archaeology becomes more historical, to the
point that the boundaries between history
and archaeology become difficult to define
(Morris 1994).
This is where I see the greatest contribution of classical archaeology in the new century. The major archaeological debates since
the 1960s were among prehistorians, and
historical archaeologists have been marginalized, plowing ahead with agendas no one
else cares about (like many classical archaeologists), or struggling to contribute modestly to the great battles over the more
distant past. Binford (1977) suggested that
the best use for historical archaeology was to
test models developed in prehistory, where
the real action was; and Kathleen Deagan
(1988: 19) felt that as American historical
archaeologists became more theoretically
and methodologically self-conscious in the
1980s, they had moved from being the
‘‘handmaiden to history’’ to being a ‘‘handmaiden to prehistoric archaeology.’’
Postprocessualism criticized new archaeology for dehumanizing the past, and in the
None of these questions were answered at
the congress. Many felt this as a disappointment, but for this the organizers cannot be
blamed. The theme was intended as a challenge to the classical archaeologists to see
their studies in a historical context, but to
look at them from new scientific angles.
Unfortunately, in many ways the congress
became more a presentation of the status
quo of the discipline than the presentation
of visions for the future, i.e., more reflections than perspectives. (Brandt 1999)
Anxiety was unmistakable in Amsterdam,
but most speakers still preferred traditional
questions, methods, and answers.
Quo Vadis?
If the field is no longer about the classics of
Western culture, providing a beacon in the
darkness of modernity, what is left of it? Is it
still a distinctive intellectual endeavor?
When Snodgrass delivered his 1984 Sather
Lectures the issue was that of reorientation
toward questions and methods pioneered
outside classical archaeology. The tension in
Amsterdam in 1998 suggests that this is no
longer at issue. The question is now not
whether change is a good idea, but what its
outcome will be. In this final section
I consider what classical archaeology might
look like without the concept of ‘‘the classical.’’
Snodgrass suggested that
the present dignified remoteness of the subject on the academic plane could give way to
the kind of acknowledged intellectual vitality that attracts attention across a range of
Classical Archaeology
1990s postprocessualists tried to address individual agency (e.g., Hodder 1999). The
most original work focused on Neolithic
northern Europe and showed the limitations
of processualism; but the thinness of the evidence, its lack of variety (most obviously, the
lack of written sources) and its chronological
imprecision made it impossible for prehistorians to produce the kind of work postprocessualism demanded (Morris 2000: 3–33). But
historical (in the sense of text-aided) archaeology can work at the required level, whether
in Pharaonic Egypt (Meskell 1999), post1500 America (McGuire and Paynter 1991;
Orser 1996), medieval and modern Europe
(Gilchrist 1994; Johnson 1996; Tarlow
1999; cf. Insoll 1999) – or Greece and Rome.
Classical archaeologists have created a
huge database, and chronologies are often
known in detail. Further, the questions classical archaeologists address, ranging from
imperialism (e.g., Alcock 1993; Webster
and Cooper 1996; Mattingly 1997; Woolf
1998) to the meanings of domestic space
(e.g., Wallace Hadrill 1994; Laurence 1994;
Nevett 1999), matter for archaeologists of
complex societies everywhere. The material
and textual records are less detailed than
those from the industrial world, but on the
other hand, the ancient Mediterranean provides greater time-depth and a range of phenomena unrepresented in modern times. The
basic structures of the Greek city-states challenge archaeological theories about social
complexity (Morris 1997), and I believe
that classical archaeology can play a major
role in putting historical archaeology at the
forefront of theoretical debates in the next
generation (Morris 2000).
Like Snodgrass, I see a strong future if
classical archaeologists work toward new
aims rather than clinging to old ones. But
engaging with both archaeological theory
and ancient social history to remake the
field as part of a broad movement in postprocessual historical archaeology means speaking to very different audiences from those of
the past; and the more we do so, the less
‘‘classical’’ classical archaeology will be.
The major debate to have emerged so far
challenges the pairing of Greek and Roman
civilization, in opposition to Egypt and the
Near East. If we discard the notion of an
exemplary Graeco-Roman classical civilization, there is no a priori reason for this arrangement. In his influential Black Athena,
Martin Bernal (1987) argued that the interest
since the eighteenth century in tracing
Europeanness back to the Greeks was partly
a racist conspiracy, concealing the Greeks’
own acknowledgment to be descendants of
Egyptian and Semitic colonists. His grasp on
classical literature and the methods of intellectual history is shaky (Lefkowitz and
Rogers 1996; Marchand and Grafton
1997), but mainstream classicist philologists
also suggest that Greek culture had more in
common with the Near East than with Rome
(Burkert 1992; West 1997). Sarah Morris
(1992) argues that before the Persian War
of 480 bc, Greek material culture was within
a Near Eastern koine. Afterwards, the
Greeks deliberately distanced themselves
from their oriental heritage.
These arguments have generated noise and
abuse that would shame the theorists in
Figure 14.1, drawing more media coverage
than prehistorians’ debates over the relationship between archaeology and nationalism,
and raising more serious issues. Where prehistorians worry about the involvement of
their forebears with Ruritanian (or any
other nation’s) identity, and how globalism
affects nationalist agendas (e.g., Kohl and
Fawcett 1995; Dı́az-Andreu and Champion
1996; Atkinson et al. 1996; Meskell 1998;
Hodder 2000), classicists focus on the larger
question of the role of their studies in the
construction of European identity as a
whole. Only rarely (e.g., Graves-Brown et
al. 1996) do prehistorians raise their sights
to this level.
On the other hand, prehistorians read
more broadly in social theory than the classicists, whose arguments are undertheorized
(Morris 2000: 102–5). Thinking about classical archaeology without ‘‘the classical’’
calls for a second step, at a very practical
Ian Morris
level. Arguments over the structure of classical archaeology a century ago combined
cultural politics with pedagogical issues,
and we should follow their lead. How we
teach classical archaeology in universities,
how we present it to non-professional audiences, how we conceive our fieldwork, how
we write our books: all are interlinked.
Professional classical archaeologists usually sit in Classics departments. But as
Snodgrass (1987: 2–6, 132–4) notes, classical
archaeologists have not only kept their distance from other archaeologists; they have
also had little to say to other classicists or
art historians. Traditional philologists or
philosophers, working on text editions or
commentaries, learned little from archaeologists engaged in attribution studies or excavation reports. Even ancient historians stayed
away while their main concern was political
narrative. As the historians’ turn toward
social, economic, and cultural questions accelerated in the 1980s, and as classical
archaeologists moved in the same direction,
these barriers weakened, and with the belated
impact of new historicism on classical literary criticism and philosophy in the 1990s, a
surprising situation has developed. By responding to the kinds of questions raised by
new archaeologists, postprocessualists, and
modern historians, classical archaeologists
are finding themselves more, not less, integrated into the intellectual currents within
classics as a whole. Archaeologists working
on panhellenism or provincial responses to
Roman imperialism find their work cited by
literary critics, and vice versa. Similarly, as art
historians of more recent periods turned first
to social and economic questions and then to
ones informed by poststructuralist literary
criticism, the classical archaeologists in their
midst grew increasingly isolated, but in the
1990s there is again convergence.
It is no easy thing to define the natural
audience or institutional location for a
changing classical archaeology. There is
much to be said for the 1970s experiments
at Indiana and Minnesota, embedding clas-
sical archaeology (or at least Aegean prehistory) in a broader program involving natural
and social scientists. UCLA has similar aims
in its Cotsen Institute, as does the Stanford
Archaeology Center, both with strong
Graeco-Roman presences. Boston University
has a single Archaeology department with
Archaeology departments are of course
common in Europe, where it is not unusual
for a specialization in Graeco-Roman
archaeology to lead to a B.Sc. degree. But
every institutional confinement creates as
many problems as it solves. The more time
students spend on osteology or statistics, the
less they have for cultural anthropology and
social theory. And the more they spend on
any of these approaches, the less time they
have for ancient languages or surveys of
Greek and Roman material culture.
The diversity of some university systems
and students’ partial freedom of choice provide some solutions. Some programs emphasize science, others fieldwork, others still
historical or artistic approaches. Some require high linguistic standards, others strong
quantitative skills. The best programs might
allow students to work out their own balance by moving between several different
departments while sharing a common core
(all students will need a basic grasp of archaeological theory and method, comparative anthropology and history, history of the
discipline, statistics, social theory, etc.), and
still leaving room for substantial fieldspecific components. Archaeologists of
Greece, India, and Peru should all be able
to talk to each other, but should also be
able to talk just as effectively with historians,
literary critics, philosophers, and art historians of their own region of the world. The
precise institutional structures may matter
less than freedom of movement across
them, but if historical archaeologies are to
recognize their potential, we should avoid
decoupling archaeologists and historians.
The fear of classical archaeologists that
their students will not find jobs unless they
Classical Archaeology
have spent years learning Greek and Latin
will be justified only so long as classical
archaeologists define their primary audience
as other classical archaeologists, embedded
in a hermetically sealed classics environments. But this is something we can change,
by challenging nineteenth-century paradigms
at all levels, not just in research and graduate
education. Undergraduates come to classical
archaeology without preconceptions that the
field is distinct from other regions of the
Mediterranean or from ancient history.
Some seek a degree in ancient history and
archaeology, others to major in archaeology
with a Mediterranean concentration. If classical archaeologists and ancient historians
decide to explode the inherited limits of
their fields, only institutional inertia can
stop them. The main cost is the effort to
prepare new materials for teaching, or to
write new kinds of textbooks (e.g., Whitley
2001). The same is true of the public arena.
The huge non-professional audience for classical archaeology (the AIA’s periodical
Archaeology has a circulation over 100,000)
is highly varied. Some people strongly support traditional models of classical excellence
and its role in upholding the social hierarchy;
but far more of those who attend lectures in
local chapters of the AIA or watch Ancient
Mysteries on television are just fascinated
by the Mediterranean. The barriers to a new
role for classical archaeology lie almost
entirely within the professional community
There was much unhappiness in classical
archaeology at the end of the nineteenth century. In the rapidly changing environment
that the expansion of the scientific university
created, some scholars squeezed out others in
the competition for status, tenure, and
rewards (e.g., Marchand 1996: 116–51;
Dyson 1998: 61–121). The changes that classical archaeology is currently passing
through may be just as traumatic. Ambitions
will be thwarted and careers ruined as some
people leap too quickly to radical reinter-
pretations of the field, and others hang on
too long to outdated ideas. But the most
important point is that the field is changing.
The only questions now are by how much,
and in what directions.
Returning to Snodgrass’ observation, quoted
at the beginning of this chapter, we might say
that a new classical archaeology is putting
elementary grammar straight. The field is
moving toward being an integral part of
archaeology, with especially close links with
classics. But as classics itself changes, substituting a broad social, economic, and cultural
approach to the ancient Mediterranean and
its larger place in world history for the old
idea of elucidating the paradigm for
Western civilization, so too must classical
archaeology. Stripped of the idea of a foundational ‘‘classical’’ moment in history,
Greek and Roman (and Near Eastern and
west Mediterranean) archaeology makes
most sense as part of a broader historical
archaeology of complex societies. In teaching, writing, and fieldwork, the new classical
archaeology speaks to central debates in
archaeology as a whole.
James’ cartoon (Figure 14.1) is a good
entry-point for the philosophy of classical
archaeology. But like many models, its
greatest value may be to throw into sharp
relief those dimensions of the field that it
cannot accommodate. Classical archaeologists have rarely, if ever, sat on their CILs
wondering about the theoreticians’ noise.
For most of the twentieth century they
looked down haughtily on the shallow posturing of those who studied savages. In the
wake of the 1960s, some began to listen to
the ruckus; and at the century’s end they are
joining in. For better or for worse, classical
archaeologists are staking out their own
claims to be poststructuralist pseuds and
phallocrat scum-bags.
Ian Morris
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