When scholars sound like salesmen

6 May 2012

It’s a classic scene from daily life at an office that may already have been ridiculed by Dilbert. A salesman selling, say, software, arrives at an office; the boss explains he needs the new software to do several things and asks whether the salesman’s product can perform these tasks. He proudly answers that yes, most of these tasks will from now on be performed perfectly, and that the remaining functionalities will be added to the software’s repertoire in the near future. The boss only asks why the new software has not been designed to do these tasks already, suspecting that the developers do not really understand the real needs of the office people.

I was reminded of this when I read about a new interdisciplinary project. Its members, no doubt sincere and hard-working scholars, mention all the benefits of working together. But what they are also saying is that so far, things have not been done as they should have been done, that tax money has been wasted, and that scholars do not understand what is expected of them: to offer the best possible information.

I love scholarship, but as webmaster of Livius.org I have – over the past sixteen years – also received hundreds of e-mail messages. I know that there’s a large group of people who are very sceptical about science and scholarship (21% of the 4200+ people that have written to me). They believe that the universities are large commercial enterprises and that news about discoveries is just like an advertisement by a multinational or a statement by a political party: a misrepresentation. Worse, these sceptics are not always wrong (example).

Statements like “we will from now on use more interdisciplinary approaches” are completely counterproductive, because they prove to many people that until now, things were wrong.

Bridging the gap

4 March 2012

On more than one occasion, I have indicated how the study of Antiquity is its own reward (example, example). What it offers, is essentially a sensation: a surprise, the experience that this text or that battle changed your own life, the sense that you’ve made contact with someone in a distant past, the Aha-Erlebnis of realizing how things actually were.

This is of course a personal experience, but that doesn’t mean that academic study is useless. It’s nice to know that your experience of the past is based on correct facts, and besides: the study of Antiquity has offered us much of great value.

As researchers, ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists have little to be ashamed of. Their work is highly relevant and offers much pleasure. Still, they exclude the man in the street. As I already indicated, books for the larger audience are often of very poor quality and have little to offer to those who are most interested.

This is why I am happy to review Die römische Armee im Experiment by Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl, which was published in 2011. Admittedly, the study of Roman army equipment is not of the greatest importance, but the contributors manage to combine the professional standards of the university with the enthusiasm for the past found among re-enactors. They show that is possible to share the excitement of research with those who are really interested. Experimental archaeology is better-suited for this purpose than other subdisciplines, but this book is a clear sign to any scholar that it is possible to keep the larger audience within scope.

[to be continued]

Citizens and Scholars

28 February 2012

In my previous post, I explained why the study of Antiquity matters. However, if you take a look at the list of reviews in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (here), you get an idea what ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists are actually investigating. It’s not a pleasant sight. The man in the street will regard most subjects as completely irrelevant. It is almost never explained how the grand theories of the humanities shape our society (see previous post again). Sometimes, the subjects are given relevance either by making comparisons or by postulating continuities, but the rise of the social sciences has made both approaches problematic.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the humanities are under attack; here is what British philosopher Alain De Botton has to say about it. I have read apologies for the study of the liberal arts, and although there is much in them I can agree with, I also find them ultimately unconvincing. If you want financial support for an educational system and a scholarly discipline, the results must be accessible to anyone, at every intellectual level.

So, the first priority must be that the man in the street get access to the results, but there are few good books that explain what the study of Antiquity is really about. Of course there are books that present the bare facts, but those who have become enthusiastic and want to know how we know these facts, are left empty-handed. I was shocked to discover that I am the first ancient historian in Holland to write a book about the Lachmann method, processual archaeology, hermeneutics, comparativism, and so on for a larger audience.

As long as scholars present only their conclusions, and do not explain how they arrive at them, people will be left with the impression that the study of the past is something easy. It is apparently just telling a story, with references to sources and excavations. Of course it is not as simple as that, but as long as ancient historians refuse to explain their method, they are preparing the way for quack historians.

However, the situation is actually even worse. I have assumed that the facts themselves are well presented, but this is probably too optimistic. Over here in Holland, there’s a professional historian who has written a book containing – if I have counted correctly – no less than 253 factual errors. None of his colleagues seems to have been alarmed, as they ought to have been: the mistakes are easy to recognize and readers may be pardoned for having a low opinion of the classics.

So here we are: people have to pay taxes to enable others to experience all the joys and delights of scholarship, and they have to pay a second time – this time to JSTOR – if they want to know the results. At the same time, scholars do not explain what they are actually doing. Nor do they explain how their ideas shape society. The current system is, to put it bluntly, an insult to those people especially who are most interested.

[to be continued]

Why the Humanities Matter

27 February 2012

Why study classics? For Wolf and Von Humboldt, the men who organized the study of Antiquity, the answer was obvious: by learning Greek, we learned to think like a Greek, and became as original, creative, and brilliant. However, this assumed the existence of a link between language and thought, which was already challenged by Schleiermacher, and rightly so.

Later historians argued that there are long continuities: western civilization started in Greece, where ideas came into being that still influence our culture. The rise of the social sciences has made this theory problematic, although it is often repeated in popular culture (e.g., in the comics 300). Others try to see the relevance of Antiquity by comparing it to the present, but this too is problematic (example). Still others have used the past to create a national identity, but invariably, those national identities turn out to be identical to the identity of the modern student, and ignore the complexities of identity formation, both ancient and modern.

The truth is that Antiquity is not terribly important. Theories like the ones above are only repeated to make political claims (e.g., Anthony Pagden, who connects Marathon to the War on Terror) or to make sure that the department of classics continues to receive money.

This means that the past itself suffers, because it is supposed to serve modern needs. History then becomes a procrustean bed. By concentrating on Greece, ancient historians abandoned the Near East, cutting off a part; by comparing the ancients to us, we are overstretching the evidence; by looking at the past as a national past, we ignore its complexities, cutting it short again.

Does this mean that the study of Antiquity is unimportant too? On the contrary! Ancient historians have often been in the advance guard of scholarship.

  • The way Politian dealt with texts, inspired Erasmus of Rotterdam, and caused the Reformation.
  • When Scaliger started to study ancient chronology, he discovered that the Bible is not to be taken literally, and caused the secularisation of our world view. Without Scaliger, no Enlightenment.
  • The discovery of the relations between languages has shaped the way we define nationality.
  • The Lachmann method was the model of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  • Frazer’s hypotheses about human sacrifice influenced decision-making in the years prior to the First World War.
  • The simplistic exegesis of Tacitus’ Germania gave rise to the Aryan myth.
  • Archaeologists have given us a Prehistory, and offered evidence for the hypothesis that human history is defined by progress.

Antiquity itself may not be terribly important, but the study of the past certainly is. Unfortunately, that what makes scholars real specialists – the epistemological foundation of their discipline, in other words – is hardly ever discussed. If the study of Antiquity is to survive, we need better books, in which our specialism is better explained. We also need to explain ourselves to a larger audience.

[to be continued]

Review: Sie bauten die ersten Tempel

15 October 2011


I already blogged about my visits to Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. It’s an important site from the Early (preceramic) Neolithicum. What it is, we don’t really know, although Klaus Schmidt, the excavator, is pretty sure that the site is religious in nature. In his nice, well-illustrated book, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel (“They built the first sanctuary”), he offers lots of information.

The book is very well-structured. In the first chapter, Schmidt explains how the site was identified. It had already been discovered, but the discoverer had not understood that the big stones on the surface were from the Stone Age. Misidentifying them as Islamic tombstones, he had not realized the site’s significance. Schmidt, who had the benefit of knowing the finds from sites like Çatal Höyük, Çayönü, Nevali Çori, and Gürcütepe, was the first to realize the importance of Göbekli Tepe (“belly hill”).

The second chapter is about the discovery of the Stone Age, from the very moment that archaeologists realized that there had been an age in which people made stone objects, until the present day. It is a very useful and interesting chapter, because Schmidt can introduce important questions and technical expressions.

The third, and longest, chapter consists of a meticulous description of what has actually been found. The five enclosures are mentioned and every pylon receives is dealth with. Those pylons, which represent human figures (ancestors?), were decorated with all kinds of animal figures. Perhaps this chapter was a bit too detailed, but Schmidt did well to separate the description from the identification.

Enclosure C; photo Kees Tol

The fourth chapter deals with the interpretations. Schmidt compares Göbekli Tepe to several other places, without making very strong statements. Nevertheless, I was impressed by his argument that at least one picture does not represent ostriches, but people dancing like ostriches. I also liked the idea that the pictures of animals might in fact be some kind of sign language, although Schmidt does not say that this is the only possible interpretation of the finds. His conclusion is essentially negative: he is certain that these animals were not representation of the hunter’s prey. No one hopes to catch spiders or snakes.

Photo Marco Prins

A predator from Enclosure C; Museum Sanli Urfa; photo Marco Prins

In the fifth chapter, we read about the way this monument was built. A great many hunters and gatherers must have been involved, and the size of the monument proves that they were well-organized. The 2007 edition of the book, which was first published in 2005, concludes with an additional chapter with new finds and further thoughts.

What I like about Sie bauten die ersten Tempel is that it presents scholarship as a puzzle and allows readers to understand the process of acquiring knowledge. There is much room for doubt and cul-de-sacs are not ignored. For example, many animals look as if they are about to attack – but what are they defending? Schmidt admits that he does not know. He calls the building a temple, but immediately stresses that in fact, we cannot really know. This is the way a true scholar must proceed. I like this excellent book and can sincerely recommend it.

Classics in Decline

29 September 2011

In 2011, I wrote a book called De klad in de klassieken, “Classics in Decline”. It is about the way classicists, archaeologists, and historians try to guarantee that their information is adequate. The seven first chapters deal with their craftmanship, the three final ones with the problems they are facing in the Dutch, bureaucratic universities. The book was published in January 2012. Below is an English synopsis; a Dutch summary is here.


Scholarship is in a state of crisis and the first branch that is no longer capable of keeping up with the others, is the study of Antiquity. This is not just the problem of classicists, Biblical scholars, archaeologists, Egyptologists, Assyriologists, historians, and so on. The causes of the decline of the classics are relevant to other branches of scholarship and science as well.

1 ‘A field of study, too easy for truly great minds’

What is the study of Antiquity? Subdisciplines. Poliziano and the origin of textual criticism; Nanni and source criticism; Erasmus; Pyrrhonism; antiquarianism and the widening scope of history; the Enlightenment.

2 Three Geniuses and a Politician

Winckelmann and Gibbon and the synthesis of earlier approaches; Philhellenism; Wolf defines the scope of the study of Antiquity; the organizer Von Humboldt; the rise of institutes; pros and cons of institutes. Four main problems:

  1. insufficient attention to the ancient Near East,
  2. archaeology insufficiently appreciated,
  3. acceptance of an unproven continuity from Antiquity up to the present day,
  4. historicism.

3 Words from the Past

Linguistic interpretation of ancient texts; cultural interpretations; intertextuality; subjectivity; Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics; Dilthey; formalism; oral literature. The fifth main problem: outdated information, because of (among other factors) outdated hermeneutic approaches.

4 Facts and Comparisons

Eyewitness accounts and primary sources; secondary sources; facts, indirect facts, aggregated facts; logical problems with empirical study; from fact to language; problems with historicism; acceptance of wide comparisons; justification of comparanda; need to collaborate with the social sciences.

5 The Handmaid of History

From antiquarianism to archaeology; Schliemann; archaeology as the handmaid of history; Kosinna; Childe; culture-historical archaeology and nationalism.

6 Archaeologies

Collaboration with the social sciences breaks historicism (a way to solve main problem #4); decisive changes (functionalism, Clark, radiocarbon); spatial archaeology (Iraq-Jarmo Project); the so-called New Archaeology; possibility to say meaningful things about continuity (a way to solve main problem #3); postprocessual archaeologies and hermeneutics; classical archaeology until 1970; Snodgrass; archaeology no longer a subdiscipline of classics (solution to main problem #2); Greece no longer considered the cradle of civilization; more attention to the ancient Near East (solution to main problem #1).

7 Facts and Explanations

The five explanatory models

  • hermeneutics,
  • positivism,
  • comparativism,
  • narrativism,
  • physics of society.

Just when four of the five main problems were potentially solved, new problems arose.

8 The Fifth Main Problem

Three examples of serious disinformation; types of error (pseudo-history, quack history, exaggeration, contamination, outdated information); the rise of outdated information and its explanations:

  • the internet*, combined with pay sites*, offer quack historians an opportunity to refer to sources, whereas true scholars can only refer to pay sites and will lose any online discussion;
  • students must obtain their MA’s in too short a time*, and are no longer recognize capable of recognizing outdated information;
  • the Convention of Valletta caused an archaeological data explosion.

We’re living in an age in which outdated information can spread faster than reliable information, while academics are less capable to fight against disinformation.

9 Waterskiing behind a Wine Ship

What is quality? Doubts about truth claims,* bureaucratic solutions.* Other problems: insufficient cooperation between historians, classicists, archaeologists; unanswered questions; insufficient theoretical innovation. Poor explanation to non-academicians; rise of a class of aggressive sceptics.*

How things went wrong. Failure of quality control;* underfunding;* disadvantages of bureaucracy;* no control whatsoever of the information sent out to the larger audience.

Must we accept the end of the classical studies? No, but reform is necessary and possible.

10 Leaving the Procrustean Bed

Scholarship should serve society, but the present Dutch universities are a Procrustean bed. What to do?

  • Answer ignored questions about comparanda and continuity;
  • Form follows content: only when we know what we really want, we can create a new system of study. Independent institutes are better than large universities. If creating an institute for all classical studies, is only possible by making it an elitist institute, that is acceptable.
  • Make sure that the larger audience understands what scholarship is about.
  • Create efficient types of control, not focused on the amount of articles published every year, but on the correctness of information that is circulating in society.

Subjects indicated with * are also relevant to other fields of scholarship.

Why Cuneiform Studies Matter

28 July 2011

The Ptolemy III Chronicle

I have just written a review, to be published in Ancient Warfare, of John D. Grainger’s book The Syrian Wars. It is an important book, because the author shows that the Syrian Wars were crucial for the formation of the two largest Hellenistic states. Grainger essentially proves that Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States (1990) is also applicable to Antiquity.

The trouble is that he might have written an even better book if he had been more aware of cuneiform studies. I know, those tablets are being published slowly, frustratingly so, and it is tempting to ignore them. Grainger is to be praised for at least reading the Astronomical Diaries, but still, he appears to be unaware of, say, the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period.

This is understandable. Like so many cuneiform texts, the chronicles have been published online only. In fact, they are still being discussed (compare this recent post). Nevertheless, the information is important. For example, Grainger is aware that during the Third Syrian War, the Ptolemaic army crossed the Euphrates, but concludes that it did not reach Babylonia. The Ptolemy III Chronicle (BCHP 11) in fact describes how the Egyptian forces massacred the garrison of Seleucia and captured Babylon. The Third Syrian War was much bigger than Grainger realizes, and Egyptian strategy was far more ambitious than he assumes.

Another mistake, less important, is Grainger’s date of the Babylonian War: the Antigonid attempt to drive out Seleucus, dated by Grainger to 311. He also writes that, to help the embattled Seleucus, Ptolemy launched a naval expedition to the Aegean. Grainger correctly dates this to 309-308, but this makes his overall reconstruction unconvincing: Ptolemy can have lured Antigonus‘ armies away from Babylonia only if the two operations took place more or less simultaneously. Fortunately, the problem vanishes once we realize that the Antigonid offensive in fact took place in 310. Grainger has not used the latest literature on the Diadochi Chronicle.

I am not writing this to diminish Grainger’s scholarship. As I said, he proves how important the Syrian Wars were, and an occasional error does not fundamentally change that. I wrote the above section to stress that two often ignored specialties actually matter: the study of cuneiform sources and the study of chronology.

There are two other points to be made. To start with, it would be nice if the students of cuneiform sources did a bit more to let the world know what they are doing. The Ptolemy III Chronicle, for example, might have been published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies. Grainger cannot be blamed for not knowing the Near-Eastern texts if there is not a signpost to give directions.

In the second place, the field of ancient history has become too complex. No one can know everything, and therefore, authors must invoke the advice of their colleagues. (This is why BCHP is preliminarily published online: to enable others to look at it, and make sure that no information is ignored.) And because no one can know everything, publishers have editorial boards. Grainger’s book deserved better editors, who might have spotted that their author had ignored, for example, Mittag’s Antiochos IV and Boiy’s Between High and Low.

Scholarship would really benefit were manuscripts to be put online first and books not to be published before a round of consultation. We have the means, we have the knowledge, and we have the technology to produce better books – so what are we waiting for?