ARTIFACT & ARTIFICE: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian

by Jonathan M. Hall

Chicago (2014) p/b 258pp £31.50 (ISBN 9780226096988)

H. sets out in this excellent collection of nine case studies (or cautionary tales, as he dubs them) to persuade the reader that no one approach to the study of classical Greece and Rome can claim ascendancy over another. Textual and the material sources cannot separately be expected to answer conclusively any of the questions which we may want to ask about the ancient world, and each has significant methodological issues which need to be addressed before major claims to conclusive knowledge are to be made. The traditional divisions of academic structure can sometimes hinder the progress towards such conclusions. H. has done his best in this book, based on a series of lectures he regularly gives at the University of Chicago called ‘Archaeology and the Ancient Historian’, to encourage fruitful dialogue and interdisciplinary approaches.

The Introduction outlines the history of archaeological exploration of the ancient world and the recent theoretical differences such as ‘New’ or ‘Processual’ Archaeology and its critics—not as dry as it sounds by any means, and really helpful for a non-specialist. The nine case studies range from Delphi (the ‘Delphic Vapours’) to Christian Rome (‘The Bones of St. Peter’), via the Persian destruction of Eretria, Fifth Century Eleusis, Socrates in the Athenian Agora, Philip’s [?] tomb at Vergina, and three key moments in Roman history: the city of Romulus, the birth of the Republic, and Augustus’ Palatine house. Something there for everyone, surely?

Each chapter treats the reader intelligently, but makes no significant assumptions about prior knowledge: an interested amateur will find much to stimulate them, a professional in classics, whether from the two discussed disciplines or from literature and language, will be provoked to reflection on the nature of the subject and of our sources of knowledge. Each chapter divides the material thematically, with a good deal of clear illustrative material for the archaeology, and reaches a conclusion which more often than not questions the validity of received wisdom or perceived knowledge; there are also collections of short translated documents for each topic.

So, did the Pythia get high on ethylene to deliver her oracles? Be careful before you answer that! Should an examination of the Persian destruction of Eretria result in a major revision of our chronology of Greek material culture? Probably not, but … . Is it really possible to identify the structures in the Athenian Agora where Socrates was tried, imprisoned and committed suicide? Caution is advised. The question of who occupied the Vergina tombs is almost too hot to handle, since answering it may involve a diplomatic confrontation between neighbouring European nation states. And so on. This lively and provocative survey offers a good overview of several important discoveries and their historical context for students, teachers and lovers of the ancient world.

Stephen Chambers – Balliol

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