Archaeology Adventures in Athens

Hello again, loyal (and new!) followers. I realized that for some reason I have been accruing more and more followers over the weeks, and decided that it was quite possibly time for an update and perhaps an updated introduction.

First, introductions.

My name is Nadhira and I am currently a third year in the Classical Archaeology PhD program at Michigan. It has truly been the wildest, trying-est, most fulfilling past two years of my life, and I look forward to all of the new opportunities for growth in the next five. I am a self-proclaimed sherd nerd – although I have loved every minute (well, maybe not every minute) of the past three dig seasons I have participated in at the Athenian Agora and the Olynthos Project, I recently discovered my love of ceramic production in the Late Classical period of Greece, and am following my heart down a twisty rabbit hole full of black glaze pottery, petrographic analysis, stamped and incised decoration, and capacity calculations (which the side of me that has hated math for 24 years isn’t exactly excited about). I’m also (relatedly?) interested in drinking practices, both public and private, in ancient Greece, and how they, like ceramic production, vary between regions.

Maybe the highlight of my research this summer has been finding little remnants of fingerprints on one of my pots that (seemingly) no one else had noticed before!

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Although I came into this project (which may or may not form the foundation of my future/quickly impending dissertation) with some pretty solid questions, I look forward to the many and varied questions that can and will arise when considering production techniques. Black glaze may not be the most interesting style, but when you look at dozens of pots in a week you start to notice some patterns, or start to ask questions about “why are there weird splotches of red?”

I only have one more week here in Athens before heading off up north to Olynthos, but I feel much more knowledgeable about what I have been working with, and have had some promising meetings with others who work on similar materials and ideas. When I go up to Olynthos I will be trying my hand more with macroscopic fabric analysis after just one week (!!) of coursework in petrography, but I hope (maybe) to be able to land a studentship at the Fitch Laboratory at the British School in Athens (heh, can’t keep me away from this place) in Fall 2019. But we’ll see. But it’s gotta happen. It’s kind of my job now. Yay, being a specialist!

(No, seriously, how did I get so many research interests in the subjects I hated through most of my schooling? Math and science? Really???)

For the remainder of my time in Athens, I have some goals:

  1. Finish up pottery analysis by Tuesday
  2. Go to the Blegen to read about the excavations at Pistiros (a super cool Greek EMPORION in 4TH CENTURY Thrace) (still peeved that the lib doesn’t have the Olynthos pubs but…w/e)
  3. Hike the Philopappos Hill and see the Philopappos Monument
  4. Visit the Piraeus Archaeological Museum
  5. Eat some gelato (it’s hot, gelato is cold…ya feel me?)

As for updates, there aren’t many…I passed my qualifying exams in May and then took a week-long intensive course on ceramic petrography at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I spent two weeks in Connecticut sitting on my butt and watching mostly movies but also Westworld (10/10 would recommend). Aaaand then I came to Greece!

And went to see all the things I’ve seen before!

And took pictures of them!

But from different angles (and with a better camera)!

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Surviving as a POC in Classics

Almost one year since my very first post about Being a POC in Classics, I am back to reflect on what I’ve learned in the last year: about being a POC and a woman in Classics.

Last year’s post was prompted by a poignant blog post that brought attention to the fact that, at an annual conference meeting for the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies, there was a sheer lack of diversity among the scholars in attendance. Although I had borne witness to this phenomenon myself, one hell of a winter storm (#BOMBCYCLONE anyone?) kept me from attending this year’s meeting in Boston.

But even as I find myself sitting in my mom’s living room, plans to participate thwarted like so many others, I still can’t shake the feeling that the scene this year is just as dire as the one last year. Not that I’d ever want to – that disparity is a significant one; one that weighs heavily on the minds of many scholars, though not always for the right reasons.

Last year, I made a point to call out the things we shouldn’t be doing – trying to coerce students of color into joining classics departments so as to ease our own minds about the lack of diversity in our classes – and suggest some things that would actually make a different – like hiring more people of color as professors and archaeologists to serve as actual role models for students to learn from; and having more people of color writing about topics concerning people of color – not just classicists from the white majority, like Sarah Bond and Mary Beard (though I’m sure they’re lovely people).

I have found myself becoming more and more inspired by the female scholars I have had the pleasure of working with in the last year and a half, and I can only imagine how much more inspiring it would be to work with a woman of color who did what I did. But, alas, women of color in classics – and archaeology – are hard to find, unless you know where to look (I honestly don’t).

However, not every female scholar I have come into contact with has been as inspiring as the rest. It’s incredible how the brain can block out a terrible incident, a moment that rubbed you the wrong way, until something much later triggers that memory once again. As I was reading the Preface of Reno Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Our Shared Shelf’s pick for Jan/Feb 2018!), I found myself agreeing with almost every word I read, especially:

I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.

Why, oh why, would something like this trigger me? What incident could it have possibly recalled for someone who, apparently, has only ever once experienced a direct, verbal, racist assault in her life (Did I not post about that? It was a pretty traumatic – non-academic-related day…)? Well, let me set the scene: Colleague A gives a presentation on her experience at a school abroad (no to be named) that is known for its institutionalized racism. Someone makes a racist joke, blatantly neglects to learn the names of two girls who are, actually, two different people, but happen to be of the same or similar race, and no one bats an eye. What’s worse is the fact that everyone’s together 24/7 and there’s no way, at all, to get any reprieve from the situation.

As a deeply introverted, socially anxious person of color, you can see where my concerns lie. However, Colleague B did not see it my way. Instead of sympathizing, she shot down my legitimate concerns, saying that it was only one person’s perspective and that it’s probably not always like that and that the experience would be worth it. To her credit, it was only one person’s POV, but who knows how long the atmosphere had been that way? How else would the people there have become so comfortable with saying such things or being so negligent if there weren’t people around them perpetuating the behavior? Who’s to say that it has or will stop?

Speaking with Colleague B was so psychologically damaging that I refused to bring it up with anyone else again afterwards. I had a meeting with a professor about my future plans and, when the program was mentioned, I expressed uncertainty about wanting to attend, but let him ramble on about the merits of the program without speaking about the concerns I had. Why? Why wouldn’t I say anything? Well, because I felt like he, a white male tenured professor, would never understand.

I think that all of this – the surge of racist incidents both towards myself and towards others, the current political climate, and my anxieties – has made things a little clearer than they were a year ago. Back then, I was wide-eyed and hopeful, urging for a change not in the curriculum but in the people teaching that curriculum, the face of classics, but with no plan for the forseeable future.

Now, I find that I was grasping in the dark for something I couldn’t see, couldn’t fully understand. In that first blog post almost a year ago, I quoted statistics about minorities in the Classics, but they are long outdated, and don’t really tell us much of anything. Last year, my blog post gained over 400 notes on Tumblr and here on WordPress, 8 likes. I know that you are out there – I remember reading so many moving responses to the post on Tumblr – and I want this to be the first step for us to come together, to lean on each other, and to find some way to make our voices louder in a discipline that still, to this day, forces us down even when it tries to lift us up.

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Minorities in Classics Poll Results

Please vote if you can! It would be really great to see how many of us are out there, but obviously don’t feel pressured to do so. This is just a random social experiment that I thought of while spending Too Many hours at home (is it time to go back to school yet??).

I Can Dig It – 3 Weeks for my 3rd Season at the Athenian Agora

At the end of my final week at the Athenian Agora Excavations 2017 in Greece, it’s only just occurred to me the irony of the fact that, in my third season participating as a volunteer on the excavation, I have spent exactly three weeks digging there out of the usual full eight weeks.

The reason for my short tenure is simple: after finishing my first year of graduate school, I felt that it was not only important that I participate in an excavation that the University of Michigan sponsored, but also that I get to work on an excavation where we were digging things that were relevant to my research interests – domestic space and ceramic analysis. Of course, I can study ceramic analysis just about anywhere, and have not missed the opportunity to use the Agora as a place to refine my skills (what little there are). But I look forward to continuing to learn and grow as the summer continues and as I make my way to Olynthos on July 1st.

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View of the Acropolis on the morning of my last day at the Agora, 6:45 a.m.

While my participation at the Agora was cut short because of my desire to split my time between excavations this year, I have felt that this season has been my most rewarding season yet and only hope to be able to continue returning in the future – and hopefully move up the ranks to assistant supervisor at some point. Here are some (non-specific) highlights.

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Trenches Beta Theta East (foreground) and West (background)

Setting up the total station. One of the biggest transferable lessons I learned this season was something that I had already learned in the past, but had somewhat forgotten during my brief hiatus from the excavation in 2016. However, once I was assigned to help set up the total station one day during my first rotation (in trench Beta Zeta), I quickly recalled how everything worked. I have only had a chance to shoot points with the Leica rod on occasions when we would open and close baskets (or new contexts within the trench), but other uses for the total station included taking points on cool finds that were to-be-catalogued, taking points for cross-sections (which would be used to later draw cross-sections), and other things. Although the Agora is organizationally different from Olynthos (i.e. the Agora is an open-area excavation as opposed to using the 5 by 5 meter squares of the “Wheeler method“), I hope that knowing how to work the total station will be useful on other projects I work on in the future.

Ceramic washing, sorting, and analysis. As someone who is very interested in the analysis of ceramics (as I have probably mentioned in previous posts), this was a very enjoyable part of my three weeks at the Agora. I only was able to do ‘pottery washing’ for a few days out of the three weeks, but I made sure to ask questions about what was happening, what I was looking at, and sometimes even technical aspects of the reading process (which the supervisors/assistant supervisors ultimately do). For example, I asked about how one supervisor chose to save certain pieces out of an entire context of objects. The short answer was that she chose things that could give her a date of some sort, like certain types of decoration, and diagnostic pieces that could be linked to vessels that might be indicative of the date of the context. In addition, she chose to keep things that were generally interesting and things that could serve as a sample of a larger group of ceramics, like tile or marble.

Of course, the same conventions as the Agora might not be followed in other excavations like Olynthos, where the seasons are shorter and the pressure is on to learn as much as we can about the site in a much briefer time frame. Moreover, at Olynthos, there is a ‘ceramics processing team’ that goes through all of the pottery that comes out during excavation, so the diggers might not even be exposed to it except when they pull it out of the ground and when we meet to discuss what has been going on in the different areas (survey, ceramics, excavation) throughout the day. Things like being able to recognize the different glazes (black, red, byzantine) and fabrics (tile vs pottery) of ceramics as well as the appropriate dates for glazes and decorative patterns might be a transferable skill, but I don’t claim to be anywhere near an expert (yet).

And, of course, digging! (Pictured: me sweeping aka 75% of my last week; Not pictured: me actually digging) The first two weeks were great because I actually got back into the swing of things pretty easily – perfecting my scarp, moving loads of dirt, finding some cool stuff (but more often being adjacent to people who were finding cool stuff elsewhere). I can’t disclose what /sorts/ of cool stuff I found myself, but I can say that it was definitely a rewarding experience. Plus, if I actually am going to be on the ceramics team at Olynthos, I can at least say that I got to dig for part of the summer. I definitely have the sore limbs and extremities to prove it…

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Even though the work was tough, I started to feel just how out of shape I really was after bending over and squatting far more than usual, the heat was brutal (but we actually got to go home early because of 100+ degree heat on my last two days!), and the dirt was literally everywhere, I can honestly say that there’s probably no place I’ve ever felt more at home than at the Athenian Agora. I’m definitely going to miss it and all of the people – the old and (some of) the new – but now it’s time for the next archaeological adventure.

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Trench Omicron Omicron (OO), where I spent week 3
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Trench Beta Zeta (BZ), where I spent weeks 1 and 2

When in Doubt, Throw Some Pots

I’m hoping lots of people will be intrigued enough by the title of this post to read it… But alas, if you know anything about how pottery is made, you will know that I was not, in fact, throwing pots in the literal sense (although that may have been fun, too).

In January, I heard from a little birdie (aka one of my cohort-mates) that she was signed up for a six-week pottery throwing class and instantly became intrigued. I had always been interested in the iconography of pottery – especially those styles and themes typical of Archaic and Classical Greece – but it was not until this term that I started to think more about the forms, functions, and general make-up of pottery. She thought it would be a really good opportunity to go and learn how pottery was made, and I agreed. So I signed up. And I loved it.

For $190-ish for a six week, two-hour a week class, we learned so much and I wish that I had had the time to go in for some extra practice (since the course fee included an extra 12 hours of studio time outside of class). All of my pots came out looking pretty similar to one another – small, sort of round bowls – until I learned how to make larger vessels like plates and large bowls. I never quite got the hang of pulling (where you stretch the clay upwards to make taller shapes, which would in turn become more bulbous shapes, like jugs and honeypots), but I was content with what I had learned in such a short amount of time.

In addition to learning the basics, I felt that it was such a wonderful escape every week to go and put all of my energy into learning these pottery throwing techniques. It wasn’t anything like the work I had to do in the office – no reading, writing, or even really thinking required. You just grabbed your hunk of clay, sat down, and let the wheel and your hands work their magic (to the best of your ability). Even when your work totally sucked and didn’t turn out the way you wanted, it was still so much fun, and I hope to be able to do it again in the future.

As it relates to ancient ceramics, I feel as though I’ve learned so much about that inadvertently. Our pottery throwing instructor, Nancy, was not super familiar with ancient pottery – though she was super excited to hear about our experiences in the field and as PhD students venturing into an archaeological experiment with her class. I think that this class has given me a real understanding of the amount of effort, time, and technical knowledge required for throwing pottery on the wheel. Especially as I struggled with the (relatively simple?) technique of pulling and stretching my clay into a taller shape, I could only imagine the huge lebetes gamikoi of Greece and Italy, which must have required an immense amount of skill to produce.

It has given me such an appreciation for ancient ceramics, and makes me want to hone my pottery throwing skills a little more so that I can replicate something from the ancient world (I’d love to make a pyxis – with a lid!) in the future. The friend I took the class with made a Carthaginian lamp that turned out so nicely, especially after it had been fired.

I highly recommend taking a pottery throwing class if you ever get the chance and are even remotely interested in ancient ceramics – it can be so eye opening (and a really nice break from Real Work)! Has anyone done anything similar before? What were your thoughts? I’d love to know about other people’s experiences!

A Beginner’s Guide To Reading 3 Epic Poems

epic [ep-ik] adj. noting or pertaining to a long poetic composition, usually centered upon a hero, in which a series of great achievements or events is narrated in elevated style

A few days I came across a curious thing on Tumblr: a student who was interested in and in possession of three epic poems – The Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid – in translation, and who wanted to read them but didn’t know how to approach them in a way that made them easy to understand.

As a classics major in undergrad, I had little trouble understanding what was going on in these epics because I had been exposed to the stories, in varying amounts, and the cultural context of the stories for a number of years already. I can only imagine what it’s like to read these stories with little to no knowledge of the Greco-Roman world or the literature that came from it.

So, after a lot of thinking, I figured the easiest way to explain how to approach these epics was to provide anyone who wants to know how (i.e. anyone who’s reading this) with 1) a brief overview of the background, major characters, and major cultural topics of each epic and with 2) a general outline of the structure(s) of the epics.

Continue reading “A Beginner’s Guide To Reading 3 Epic Poems”