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Prehistorians Round the Pond: Reflections on Aegean Prehistory as a Discipline

July 2007 (111.3)

Prehistorians Round the Pond: Reflections on Aegean Prehistory as a Discipline

By John F. Cherry, Despina Margomenou, and Lauren E. Talalay. Pp. xix + 179, figs. 10, charts 20, tables 11. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Ann Arbor 2005. $19.95. ISBN 0-9741873-1-3 (paper).


Prehistorians Round the Pond provides a convenient synthesis of the state of the field of Aegean prehistory written by a variety of scholars from the United States, Greece, and the United Kingdom. The contributors represent a diverse range and include university professors, academic editors, museum curators, and doctoral candidates. The aim of this book, a self-reflective work about an academic discipline, is to empower the field at large. Most of the chapters are the result of a roundtable discussion of 12 invited speakers to a workshop held at the University of Michigan in 2003. The “dominantly Anglo-American perspectives” (xviii) of the workshop were widened for the published volume by the inclusion of three Aegean prehistorians not based in the United States (Renfrew and Hamilakis in the United Kingdom, Fotiadis in Greece).

An undercurrent in this volume is that there is an identity crisis in Aegean archaeology, especially in the United States, and a “sense of marginalization and the feeling that our core interest and those of colleagues in classics, anthropology, or history of art are now rather far apart” (1). The contributors attempt to make people aware of the possible origins for these feelings and provide some level of explanation and possible solution to the divisions.

The book is logically organized for the most part, with seven papers from the workshop followed by three responses. There is, unfortunately, no concluding remarks from the organizers or editors, which would sum up the discussion. Chapter 1 (Cherry, Margomenou, and Talalay) sets the stage and asks several relevant questions about the present and future state of Aegean prehistory. The authors delve into problematic terms such as “Aegean” and “prehistory,” perhaps making more out of the various nuances of the terms than the evidence warrants, but still it is a useful critique and makes a person more aware of the power of course titles or seminar subjects. Some aspects of the history of the discipline and the various agendas employed in studying the prehistoric past are included in this chapter. These themes are also discussed in more detail by the conference contributors and the respondents.

Chapters 2 (Cherry and Talalay) and 3 (Cullen) are useful for appraising the state of the field of Aegean studies in terms of publication venues, gender divisions in employment and publishing, countries of residency, and academic affiliation. Cullen’s chapter foreshadows that by Burns (ch. 6) by looking at the productivity of Aegean prehistorians within the overall field of classical archaeology.

Chapter 3 (Andreou) shows us that an awareness of the social context of archaeologists is of key importance in assessing a field of study. Andreou’s analysis focuses specifically on the practice of Aegean prehistory by Greek scholars, in the past and currently. One problem, however, is that Andreou never clearly defines what it means to be a “Greek” prehistorian. Does this include all native Greek speakers who work in archaeology or only those educated to the doctorate level in Greece, employed in Greece, and publishing in modern Greek? Many people born in Greece move abroad for graduate education and employment, and many foreign-born Aegeanists live in Greece today.

Chapter 5 (Davis and Gorogianni) is a case study looking at the University of Cincinnati and its rich history of prehistoric studies based in the Department of Classics and heavily dependent on funds left by Louise Taft and her husband, William T. Semple, former chair of the department. The authors of this chapter also outline the early history of archaeological research in Greece through the American School of Classical Studies at Athens by looking at the specific working relationships of Edward Capps, Bert Hodge Hill, and Carl Blegen.

Divisions and differences are the focus of chapter 6 (Burns), which examines the Aegean prehistorian’s role in classical studies. The issue of state formation, as Burns cites, is a field of study of interest to many classical scholars (including prehistorians) and one that employs a wide variety of research methods. It is also refreshing to read a critique of Aegean prehistory, which suggests that maybe “the crisis” is not entirely our own fault; maybe our philologically focused colleagues who make up the majority of classics departments need to be included in the discussion and make some adjustments.

Chapter 7, the final chapter of the workshop contributors, is by Leontis, a scholar of modern Greek literature and intellectual history. Her point of reference is the theme of the Greek topos in the 20th century by literary and artistic giants such as Elytis, Seferis, and Moralis. The Aegean is shown to be much more than a geographic area. According to Leontis, it has an important sense of place and is “home” for Greek artists and intellectuals. Her chapter is a fascinating overview, but its connection to Aegean prehistory is somewhat tenuous.

Responses from the non U.S.-based scholars (Renfrew, Fotiadis, Hamilakis) follow in the next three chapters. Fotiadis (ch. 9) looks at the political relevance of Aegean prehistory with an implicitly progressive agenda, assuming, it seems, that all prehistorians are interested in aligning the discipline with progressive political causes. Hamilakis’ contribution (ch. 10) is perceptive and asks whether framing “our reflections using the disciplinary label of Aegean prehistory is still valid or even desirable” (172), since many practicing scholars today, like Hamilakis himself, do not identify themselves as “Aegean prehistorians.” The language of Fotiadis and Hamilakis is rich and complex, reflecting current trends in a variety of academic disciplines.

Although Renfrew’s contribution is antepenultimate, it is perhaps the most optimistic and would have been better placed as the final word. It is appropriate to have Renfrew’s contribution because it was he who so famously fueled and framed the debate over 25 years ago in “The Great Tradition versus the Great Divide: Archaeology as Anthropology?”(AJA 84 [1980] 287–98). This citation, however, brings up a minor quibble with the volume. The contributors are widely read, and the stimulating topics raised in their discussions are easily pursued in the list of references that follow each chapter. But many sources are repeated. Renfrew’s seminal article is cited in varying formats in five of the 10 lists of references. Another citation (I. Morris, “Archaeologies of Greece,” in I. Morris, ed., Classical Greece: Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies [Cambridge 1994] 8–47) is listed six separate times. The reader perhaps would be better served by a single bibliography at the end of the volume with all of the works listed in one location.

One other comment comes to mind after reading this excellent collection of essays. An area of study that might have been covered in more detail in relation to Aegean prehistory is that of art history. Within the last seven years, I can think of two major teaching and research positions at North American universities that were specifically geared toward Aegean prehistorians, and these were/are in departments of art history. The future of the field of Aegean prehistory does look bright to my mind, but, to a degree, it will be dependent not on colleagues who specialize in Greece but on those who concentrate their research on visual and material culture across time and space.

This is a very enjoyable text by well-read contributors with much to say about their field of study. Overall it is a useful book for Aegean prehistorians looking to situate themselves and their work within the field; it also valuable reading for classicists who have longed been intrigued by the field that never ceases to fascinate.

Brendan Burke
P.O. Box 3045 STN CSC
University of Victoria
Victoria, BC V8W3P4

Book Review of Prehistorians Round the Pond: Reflections on Aegean Prehistory as a Discipline, edited by John F. Cherry et al.

Reviewed by Brendan Burke

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (July 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1113.Burke

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