Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Who Reviews the Reviewers? On Lemche on Cline’s 1177 B.C.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas (1656)

A review of a review? The mise en abyme may be too much for a blog post. But please indulge me for a bit, because I truly think there are some important issues to tease out here.

One of the major tensions that academics face is the pull between specialization and interdisciplinarity. Not just the increase in knowledge of a specific field, but also the increase in secondary academic literature about that field, means that scholars need to specialize more and more. At the same time, scholars are constantly asked to include multiple disciplines in their outlook, to be able to evaluate and understand work in a variety of fields. Related to this is the tension between specialization and generalization. With this increasing specificity in scholarly work, it becomes harder and harder for academics to write general accounts of the state of their own field (let alone others); for scholars of the ancient world, this means what life was like in the past. And it becomes harder and harder for scholars to explain what it is they do, and why they do it, to the public.

A good example to explore these tensions is Eric Cline’s recent book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press, 2014). This volume sums up the state of our knowledge about a major issue: the collapse of the international system in the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Why did political and social systems from Greece to Turkey to Egypt to the Levant change so drastically at this time? This is a problem that touches on data and analysis from classics, Near Eastern studies, anthropology, history, and environmental science, among other fields. Interestingly, Cline’s book has become something of a phenomenon – very unusual for a scholarly book, even one for a popular audience:  it has led to a series of news articles, an op-ed by Cline in the New York Times, and is already set to be translated into at least 10 languages. Because of the parallels with our society today that it confronts us with, especially in the emphasis of the role of climate change in systems collapse, 1177 B.C. has clearly resonated with a wide audience.

What I want to focus on here is not Cline’s book itself, but a review of that book by the prominent biblical scholar Niels Peter Lemche. Lemche’s review appeared in The Bible and Interpretation, an online journal aiming for both a public and a scholarly audience. A review of a review is an odd thing, and not something I would normally recommend doing. But in this case, I think we can see a fascinating intersection of the tensions I mentioned above – specificity and generalization, specialization and interdisciplinarity – along with the basic tension of academic vs. public scholarship. What is it that scholars do, and who do we do it for?

Lemche’s review of 1177 B.C. is mostly positive. But among his observations is Cline’s limitations as a scholar – that is, he is an archaeologist, and not a historian: “he lacks the training of a proper historian (who might, then, lack archaeological training), and textual hermeneutics are not his strong point.” That his interdisciplinarity is limited, and, even if this is understandable (since Cline is only human), it ultimately limits the power of his explanations for the far-reaching events of the end of the Late Bronze Age. This is an important point to consider – and it is even more important since Lemche himself is primarily a biblical scholar, writing about a book that, as Lemche himself says, is not primarily concerned with the Bible. Instead, we find Lemche’s review ranging to other fields outside his own specialty, especially classics; and the things that Lemche has to say about classics need to be addressed.

Lemche suggests the possibility that the site of Hisarlik in modern Turkey, widely identified with ancient Troy, might not have been the ancient site because of its small size. In considering the possibility of the identification of other sites in the region with Troy, he then wonders: “Personally I would like to know if a proper survey of the area in the fashion of the Israeli surveys of central and northern Palestine has ever been conducted.” But Lemche need not wonder. In fact, an important and well-known survey of this very type was conducted by J.M. Cook (The Troad: An Archaeological and Topographical Study) and published in 1973 – before the surveys of central and northern Israel that Lemche cites. Beyond this, there is very famously a long history of scholarship evaluating the identification of Troy at Hisarlik, the possibility of identifying Troy at other sites in the region (such as Bunarbashi), and the relative roles of Schliemann and others (especially Frank Calvert) in the identification. So Aegean Bronze Age archaeologists and classicists are hardly naïve about the nature of the identification of Hisarlik with Troy, or even what it means to find “Homer’s” Troy. On the other hand, Lemche seems to be unaware that – while the citadel of Hisarlik itself is fairly small – Manfred Korfmann’s excavations at the site revealed a previously unknown and much larger lower city, indicating the site was of greater importance than its appearance might have suggested before. (For discussion, see among others Eric Cline himself in his The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 98-102; also alluded to briefly in 1177 B.C., p. 127.)

I would also like to highlight Lemche’s focus on Israeli surveys as a model for archaeologist. While Israeli archaeologists have indeed conducted some good-quality survey work since the 1980s at least, and are especially to be applauded for the institution of a nation-wide survey (the Archaeological Survey of Israel) already in the 1960s, they have hardly been at the forefront of survey work in archaeology. Surface survey, often called fieldwalking – the systematic exploration of a site or region, looking to identify man-made features and artifacts – has been part of the archaeologist’s toolkit for many decades. In the Near East, it was promoted famously by Robert Adams from the 1960s, and even earlier by Robert Braidwood in the 1930s; in Greece, by Richard Hope Simpson among others from the 1960s. (The Archaeological Survey of Israel itself was the realization of a survey project first proposed by the British archaeologist P.L.O. Guy in Mandate Palestine.) The fact that Lemche focuses on Israeli surveys suggests a lack of familiarity with the history of survey in archaeology, and a familiarity only with archaeological work as it intersects with his expertise in biblical studies. (Admittedly, it may also reflect the presumed interest of his audience in The Bible and Interpretation.)

Lemche continues by suggesting that the Homeric poems preserve little information on Mycenaean Greece:
Homer knew almost nothing concrete about the time of the Mycenean [sic] sea empire. The only object directly linked to Mycenea [sic] is not to be found in the Iliad but in the Odyssey: The helmet hanging on the wall in the house of the chief of the Phaiacians, a helmet put together with teeth from a wild boar, a feature well known from Mycenean archaeology (but not mentioned by Eric, who concentrates on the Iliad).
For someone familiar with the classical material, this passage will seem very odd. First, by “Mycenea” does Lemche mean Mycenaean Greece? Mycenae itself? In fact, scholars generally believe that Mycenaean Greece was characterized by a series of largely independent city-states (even if Mycenae was the most powerful among them), and so this hardly qualifies for a “sea empire”. Then there is the boar’s tusk helmet. As it turns out, this helmet is not associated with the Phaeacians, and is not mentioned in the Odyssey, but in the Iliad after all (Book 10, lines 261-265). And while this is the most celebrated or most striking apparently Mycenaean survival in the Homeric poems, they do know of other things from Bronze Age Greece: other weapons and arms like the tower shield and the war chariot, and at least a certain amount of Mycenaean geography. Again, there is a very long history of scholarship evaluating the Mycenaean context of Homer, positively or negatively, that could have been consulted here; most famous is the (negative) evaluation of Moses Finley in The World of Odysseus (something of a phenomenon in its own right after it was first published in 1954, and still in print six decades later).

I am especially struck by Lemche’s opinion that we know more about the Late Bronze Age, or at least that we know many of its “leading personalities” better, than for any other period in antiquity, including the classical periods. I, too, think that the Late Bronze Age is a fascinating period historically, but I cannot imagine finding a historian of either period who would agree with Lemche’s assessment. To my mind, we know orders of magnitude more about classical Greece and the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean than about the Late Bronze Age Near East. Our social and economic data for these periods are unparalleled for the ancient world. Papyri from Ptolemaic Egypt allow detailed economic analysis that is simply not possible for most other periods (a point I picked up from Finley again, in Ancient History: Evidence and Models). A wealth of ancient literary manuscripts, consisting of things like Egyptian papyri and Dead Sea Scrolls, allow for the reconstruction of the transmission and literary context of early Jewish, Christian, and classical texts in ways completely unthinkable for the Late Bronze Age Near East. We have all sorts of writings on history and biography; these include first-hand writings of ruling figures from Julius Caesar to Marcus Aurelius. Medical texts, geographies, plays, poetry, satires, letters, royal decrees, law codes. And on and on.

So what should we make of Lemche’s critique of Cline’s control of different disciplines? As it happens, Cline has training in not only classical and Near Eastern archaeology, but also ancient history and anthropology. He is therefore one of the best-positioned scholars today to write a synthesis of the collapse of Late Bronze Age societies. True, archaeologists working in Israel (especially “biblical archaeology”) have traditionally lacked a good theoretical backing in the understanding of texts – that is, hermeneutics – but this has historically been true of much biblical scholarship! Lemche himself, we may note, has degrees not in history but in theology.

But how we analyze texts is, as Lemche suggests, a major problem. To illustrate it, I would like to focus on one extended historical discussion from Lemche’s review: his emphasis of the importance of internal problems in the Late Bronze political systems, and specifically the ‘apiru. The ‘apiru were a group of people living in Late Bronze Palestine, and throughout the Near East; exactly who they were – an ethnic group, a social class, or some combination – has been debated by scholars for some time. We learn about their presence in Palestine especially from the Amarna Letters, a valuable archive of correspondence between the Egyptian king and the local rulers of Canaan (and also with other great kings of the Near East) from the 14th century BCE, discovered at the site of Tell el-Amarna in central Egypt. Lemche, recommending an old article by the great Near Eastern historian Mario Liverani, suggests that the ‘apiru were “refugees,” peasants who left their villages to live elsewhere in order to flee debt. In this view, the ‘apiru problem worsened over time, so that by the Amarna period were seen as enemies of the Egyptian king who could take over entire towns. Thus, according to Lemche, the ‘apiru were a symptom of “serious social and political problems” that ultimately played a part in the collapse of the political system.

For Lemche, this is an example of how Cline could have incorporated “a more sophisticated reading of the relevant texts.” But I am not so sure. In this space, of course, I am not able to discuss the issue of the ‘apiru in any detail. However, I would like to make a brief analogy to a situation in the same place (Palestine) at a very different point in history: the 16th and 17th centuries CE, the early Ottoman period. We know a great deal about society and administration in early Ottoman Palestine, thanks in part to imperial Ottoman registers known as mühimme defteri. The mühimme defteri are registers of the Sultan’s decrees; those involving the provinces were usually based on a petition by a local official or notable, and the registers include both the initial petition and the imperial decree. For Palestine, a selection of these texts was presented in translation with commentary in Uriel Heyd’s classic Ottoman Documents on Palestine (1960). These registers presented a picture of increasing corruption among officials, villages steadily falling into ruin, increasing amounts of firearms entering the country, constant threats of Bedouin attacks. Some documents describe Bedouin and townspeople working together in acts of robbing caravans and even raiding villages. The documents thus seemed to confirm the then-dominant theory of Ottoman decline: that after a brief flourishing period in the mid-16th century, Ottoman administration and the living conditions of the provinces steadily deteriorated, until Westernization and modernization began in the 19th century.

But this view, while dominant in the middle of the 20th century, has been widely abandoned by specialists in the field. It was already shown to be incorrect for Palestine by Heyd’s own student Amnon Cohen (in Palestinein the Eighteenth Century, 1973). Cohen’s work highlighted instead the resilience and capabilities of local rulers and people at the supposed low point of Ottoman decline. And more broadly for the eastern Mediterranean, the general thesis of Ottoman decline has been rejected in Ottoman studies for two decades at least.

Part of the problem with Heyd’s use of the mühimme defteri is the fact that he takes them completely at face value: his analysis involves little more than restatement of claims made in the petitions. This is despite the fact that these petitions are obviously selective – they represent an elite perspective. (We might view things quite differently if we had the perspective of the villagers or Bedouin of Palestine.) More than that, they have clear cases of exaggeration or outright false statements.

For a scholar of the ancient world reading these petitions, what is most striking is how similar they sound to the correspondence of the local Canaanite rulers to the Egyptian king in the Amarna letters. Both sets of texts paint a picture of a constant threat of warfare, of local officials doing their best to be loyal to the empire, but needing imperial aid. And there is the tipoff. Both the Amarna letters and the petitions of the mühimme defteri were written by local rulers and officials trying to bring about the intervention of a distant ruler. Both therefore have a clear motive to exaggerate or outright lie, to make the situation seem more desperate than it actually was – and we see clear evidence of this in the case of Ottoman Palestine. So why not in Late Bronze Age Canaan as well?

When we reconsider the ‘apiru, we realize how similar the description of them sound to those of the Bedouin in the Ottoman registers: the ‘apiru “plunder all of the king’s land,” they “take the cities of the king”; cities and towns “unite with the ‘apiru,” townspeople remove their rulers and “become like the ‘apiru.” In both ancient and modern cases, there are problems with taking these documents at face value. The Bedouin – and so perhaps the ‘apiru – may have been a problem for the imperial administration, because they could not easily be counted and kept track of for taxation and conscription, and at times may have come into conflict with them. But they were hardly a symptom of major societal problems, let alone a contributing factor to a drastic collapse in the political or settlement system.  Instead, the exaggerated, imperial perspective of the Ottoman registers was probably so readily accepted as straightforward truth because it confirmed the biases of scholars against Bedouins and other nomads. I am not certain, of course, if this analogy is truly helpful for understanding Palestine in the Late Bronze Age. But if we truly want to conduct sophisticated readings of texts, these are the sorts of issues that with which we need to be engaging.

After this exercise, I am left with the following question: What do we expect from a professional review? We would hardly tolerate uninformed and unsourced speculation in an academic review. Should we accept it in a non-academic publication? To do so suggests that academics hold popular publications to lower standards, and ultimately insults the non-specialist readership of these publications. We have a responsibility to inform the public of our discoveries and conclusions – in an accessible way, certainly, but one that still holds to basic standards of academic rigor. In fact, Cline’s book is an excellent example of how we can engage a broad readership in a thoughtful way. Even if written in a different style, and not including some technical details, our public scholarship should still have the same rigor: rigor of thought, and rigor of research. We owe our readers no less.


DNak said...

Thanks, this is useful and well-done. I do think that it's important that the original post wasn't a review, but rather "Notes on..." Not that this excuses sloppy work -- it doesn't -- but there is a different claim to authority being made in a review. I would say things in a blog post or in a "notes" section on a website that I wouldn't say in a review, and I suspect that I'm not alone in that. Having said all that, one would expect more from a scholar in any written text than what I found on Lemke's quasi-review. Frankly, his comments were just dumb. The only valid point he seems to have made is that an archaeologist is not a historian. But if archaeologists aren't good at reading texts then it also follows that historians aren't good at archaeology, which he manages to prove for us in his comments. Perhaps we should congratulate him.

Anonymous said...

This has become Lemche's MO, where instead of arguing the facts he tries to change the subject to some obscure tangent, where he derides the author for missing the nonexistent relevance.

Michael said...

DNak, thank you for the compliment and for your thoughtful comments. I agree that it is important that this is titled "Notes on . . ." and is included in the "In My View" section, which is intended to be less rigorous. I also agree that this still doesn't explain away the nature of that piece. But it is something I probably should have mentioned and reflecting on it would have changed my characterization a bit.

As for an archaeologist not being a historian, I am mixed on this point. I do agree with Lemche that archaeologists (especially those working on ancient Israel, with whom I'm most familiar) do not have a well-developed toolkit for reading texts. But this is not absolute. It's worth noting that in NELC (and Classics) departments archaeologists have traditionally seen themselves as historians. Of course, calling yourself a historian is not the same as actually being a historian. But there are cases of people with PhDs in archaeology from NELC departments who have been hired for Ancient History positions. Also, to the extent that this point is valid, Lemche chose a horrible example for illustration because Cline's PhD is actually in Ancient History.

DNak said...

I'm a historian-archaeologist, too. I don't agree with the view that historians aren't good archaeologists and vice versa: I know plenty of counter examples. That's why I couched it in a conditional; I should have been more explicit that I wasn't committed to that view.