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Artifact and Artifice: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian

Artifact and Artifice: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian

By Jonathan M. Hall. Pp. xviii + 258, figs. 52, tables 10, maps 2. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2014. $45. ISBN 978-0-226-09698-8 (paper).

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At least since the 1960s there has been much discussion on a so-called multidisciplinary approach to the distant past. So far, this approach has been seldom successful. The book under scrutiny is the latest effort to bridge the divide between two directions in the research of antiquity: archaeology and ancient history. Hall explains the juxtaposition of the terms “artifact” and “artifice” in the title as a signal “that both material objects and written texts are created ‘artfully’ by knowledgeable agents and that both need to be interpreted with art and skill” (xvi). Still too often, ancient historians fail to include results of archaeological research, even though available, into their considerations—or vice versa. To illustrate for his audience how previous scholars have juxtaposed literary and material evidence, Hall presents nine case studies “designed to illustrate the broader methodological problems involved with correlating textual and material evidence rather than to offer definitive solutions to the subjects with which they are concerned” (xv). As such, this book is directed primarily at advanced undergraduate and graduate students as well as a more informed general audience. The nine case studies, five with a Greek subject, four with a Roman, are preceded by an introductory chapter (“Classical Archaeology: The ‘Handmaid of History’?”) and concluded by “Conclusion: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian.” A “List of Ancient Authors” (221–24), a glossary (225–29), a bibliography (231–48), and an index (249–58) complete this work.

Essentially, this book is about historical method in its widest sense, meaning how to evaluate material evidence against the documentary one that used to dominate (and, frankly speaking, in fact still dominates) the historian’s craft (a word I use intentionally). As Hall underlines in the first chapter (in which he lays a sound foundation for his enterprise), “history is an active, forensic practice, which involves engaging with, testing and interrogating the fragmentary clues that have survived from the past” (2 [emphasis original]). Much like the (ancient) historian—searching the sources with different questions and another approach—developed his craft from, for example, Lorenzo Valla’s exposition of the Donatio Constantini in 1440 C.E. until the present day (among others by incorporating historians into a trade traditionally dominated by classicists), also the archaeologist changed. From the late 16th century C.E. onward, material evidence, at first from Italy, and about a century later also from Greece, started to be moved to western Europe. This material evidence appeared first as curiosa, then as objects of monetary value, from the mid 18th century finally also as testimonies to cultural developments in their respective countries of origin. Gradually, too, archaeology became a professional occupation using analytical methods, instead of an “amateur” pastime of collecting antiquities. Inevitably, this development led to tensions between representatives of both directions. After the end of World War II, another divide grew within the archaeological community, between adherents of “New Archaeology” and followers of the more traditional Altertumswissenschaft. This divide has led to new(?) notions that “‘context matters’ or that there might be a natural alliance between archaeology and history” (15).   

As both the professions of archaeology and ancient history are about to enter new phases, thanks among other things to the introduction of new techniques and the growth of projects incorporating scholars working in different disciplines, Hall’s book is, I think, just in time to lead the way for a new generation of scholars of the disciplines involved. Hall’s nine subject studies cover a wide range in time and place, from the Archaic and Early Classical periods to the 13th century C.E. Each topic is lucidly presented and, wherever needed, illuminated by photographs and line drawings; in five cases, one or more tables clarify and/or elaborate the text. Moreover, the discussion of each subject is summarized in a conclusion and ends with some fragments from literature in translation. The quality of the photographs could, I think, have been better (e.g., with slightly improved contrast), but that may well have been related to the type of paper stock the University of Chicago Press selected for this publication.

All examples adduced make clear that literary and material evidence are not to be linked directly: such a “positivist fallacy” tends to overlook that, though both kinds of evidence might appear to support each other, we should constantly bear in mind that other explanations remain possible or feasible. One of the reasons to entertain such prudence is that our evidence, of both kinds, ultimately is extremely fragmentary. In this respect, it is essential to first try to define a “broader literary or material context and only then to consider whether there might be a relationship between the two” (208). Time and again, Hall stresses the need to contextualize individual scraps of evidence—even though such contexts themselves are the products of assessments made by scholars. Simultaneously, there is the need for ancient historians and classical archaeologists not to look too one-dimensional to the other field: Hall offers some striking examples (209) for such accidents. At the same time, it is essential that there is cross-fertilization instead of unidirectionality, taking into account that “the textual and the material are entirely different discourses” (210). A final point that should be considered is that both archaeology and history can be profoundly political—or ideological—disciplines: therefore “[a]ncient historians and classical archaeologists need to be sensitive to the politics of the past” (211).

In spite of Finley’s remarks (expounded on 213–14), collaboration (and, indeed, familiarity with each other’s tools of the trade) between archaeologists and historians should be promoted to bridge the “Great Divide,” to make each aware of the potential “the other trade” has to offer. Though the examples in the book are (regrettably) exclusively taken from Greek and Roman evidence, and the book itself is evidently written with the Anglo-American situation in mind, it does open the way to apply the advocated approach to evidence from other fields of research. As such, I find this book highly commendable and obligatory reading in both ancient history and archaeology classes.

Jan P. Stronk
Ancient History
University of Amsterdam

Book Review of Artifact and Artifice: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian, by Jonathan M. Hall

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 2 (April 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1192.Stronk

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