Recently, a bunch of coins were found off the coast of Spain. Also, some guy in the UK unearthed a Roman villa in his garden. While digging out a new metro line, workers in Italy uncovered a Roman barracks. A massive naval base has been found around Athens. A new Indo-Greek city has been excavated in Pakistan. In short, we’re finding new things on a fairly continual basis. Whether they be professionally excavated archaeological digs, advances in technology aiding scholars to review our knowledge more carefully, or “accidental” finds like many of the above, Classics is in constant flux. Some discoveries may overturn longstanding theories while others may be fairly mundane. Either way, despite the longevity of the discipline, there is still a ton of work for Classicists to do. Here’s a brief pass at the state of Classics research.
As one would expect, excavations are the primary way we gather all our material finds. Dig sites show cities, buildings, streets, trade routes, and burials, often containing lots of valuable items like papyri, pottery, tools, weapons, and other artifacts. Oh, and lots of junk, broken pot sherds, and dirt. That stuff tends to not make it into the papers though. Classics is far from just sitting in a holding pattern, and it would be really silly to believe Classics is a dead field.
Classics is pretty much operating on a bare bones system of knowledge, to be blunt about it. Yet another article where I get to write “we don’t know shit”. It has been estimated that of all the surviving authors and texts we have, which is still quite a decent collection, this is a mere fraction of what the ancient world produced. And by fraction I mean 90% plus of all ancient literature is unknown to us. Last I checked, 10% was a failing grade. We turned it into the basis for all Western education. Likewise, when one thinks about how many cities, villas, forts, and sacred sites there were, our excavations are far from complete. There’s a lot out there to discover. The short version is we know somewhere between fuck and all, with more emphasis on the fuck side of it.
On the professional front, most major university Classics departments maintain an archaeology subdiscipline, or have a few on the payroll. Big time money rollers run their own digs, or share custody of a given site. In addition, Greece and Italy run foreign archaeological schools. The American Academy in Rome and the American School of Classical Studies in Athens are two of ours. Also note, Classics isn’t just an American venture. Dozens of countries (mostly European, for obvious reasons) run Classics programs and produce research.
Not only do current digs and projects spearhead new Classics research, but older digs and material get re-examined occasionally, and more information can be gleaned thanks to better technology and methodologies. Multi-decade and “legacy” sites seem to be well represented in the grand scheme of things, but there’s always something new to find in them, or always something that didn’t get done quite right the first time. Plus, opening a brand new dig site isn’t always possible. Politics, law, and funding can be barriers to digging a big hole in someone else’s backyard.
On the unprofessional front, looters and collectors continue to exist. It seems downright Medieval, but there is such a thing as an antiquities black market. It’s right next to the gun runner black market, you know, Bombs-R-Us? Just swing a left, you can’t miss it. There’s big money in owning a rare piece of Roman pottery, or a Greek bronze, or whatever the hell else it is rich people collect. And it’s been going on since about, oh, forever. Occasionally a wealthy collector decides to stop being a tool and donates their collection to a museum or university. At this point, usually the organization accepting the pieces says “thank you” while silently muttering “for destroying the context, dick head” behind the donor’s back. Really, art that has been squirreled away by fat cat idiots like Scrooge McDuck isn’t technically “new” or a “discovery”, but since private collectors tend to not let anybody else enjoy the pieces, it’s a discovery for the rest of us when they return to the public sphere. Yeah, I cheated. My blog, my rules.
Archaeology is inherently a destructive act in any case, and while we’ve come a long way since guys like Heinrich Schliemann used friggin dynamite, it still isn’t a perfect practice. A lot of care goes into a dig nowadays, and that naturally slows things down. Dynamite is quick (and way more fun), but it tends to destroy the material and its archaeological context. The work of excavating a site is somewhat less admirable than Indiana Jones makes out; for starters, there’s roughly 50% fewer Nazis per dig site than as depicted in the movies. About the same amount of drinking and gun slinging though.
Publishing seems be an archaeological hot button issue as well. Boring pot pieces, simple tools, and other finds that tell a lot about a people and place tended to either get discarded or shoved in storage for decades. Scholars are getting better about publishing quicker, but it’s still a tedious process. In the best of times there is a joke that for every one year spent digging, it takes 10 to publish the finds. I worked on stuff that was 50 years old and still isn’t published.
When the digging, collecting, archiving, drinking, and punching Nazis aspect of archaeology ends, the frenzy of studying begins. There is a lot of material we have that simply hasn’t been worked on yet. As an example, Michigan has a very large papyri collection that is estimated to take 100 years to fully study. There’s just too much good liquor that needs drinking first.
Perfectly executed segue that that was, literature is the other main source for information. Occasionally scholars will find a proverbial gold mine, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other times they’ll discover nice additions like the new Sappho fragment. Most times, we discover relatively boring things, like some guy’s IOU to a neighbor, or yet another copy of Homer.
Better tech like modern imaging machines help us read the previously unreadable. Even online dictionaries and databases allow scholars to create better textual analysis. It is way easier using a word search to find and analyze all the meanings of a word nowadays. Back in the old days, you had to have a really good memory and essentially read the entire corpus. Which is what some people did. We called them “Germans”. Now, however, the possibilities of comparing multiple texts right down to specific words and word order is as simple as a few mouse clicks. Laziness wins again!
Philology has its fair share of problems too. As with archaeology, publishing is an issue. Like archaeology, it’s a slow process when it’s done right. The fragility and condition of the papyri can make a lot of them impossible to read—they might simply fall apart if handled improperly, or at all. Even well preserved papyri can be a pain in the ass to try studying. Between the chicken scratch handwriting, errors, and other orthographic issues, it can be difficult to know just what you’re reading. You think it’s annoying when people misspell words on Facebook? Try figuring out ancient Greek misspellings.
Nevertheless, because philologists (and by extension historians) don’t need plane tickets to foreign countries and shovels, our research is cheaper to fund and carries on pretty well. While most research involves very picky things that don’t concern the general population, like the history of the letter sigma or how poo was a function of the social structure for Roman Britain, the occasional “Roman Emperors” primer hits the bookshelves as well. Those primers are usually written by historians, because historians are the best of the best.
Finally, sometimes there are just forces beyond our control that impact Classics discoveries. Politics and notably warfare can not only prevent new discoveries, but also destroy existing knowledge. During the Iraq War, for example, there was an effort to train members of the military in artifact preservation—a simple “don’t bomb the historical sites” wasn’t quite good enough. While it’s unknown how much damage (if not from bombs then from looters) the war caused, it’s noteworthy that an effort was undertaken at all and shows some of the consequences that impact our studies. Perhaps more directly, ISIS has made a thing of destroying ancient sites, such as Palmyra. Perhaps more famously, the Library of Alexandria was possibly damaged or destroyed during Julius Caesar’s civil war. The Parthenon was also damaged by Venetian mortar fire in the 17th century. War is bad, mmmkay? We can’t study certain things because morons in our past blew them up.
On the plus side, government funding and joint research efforts can increase the rate of discovery. National museums, universities, and libraries can house plenty of scholars and artifacts. Even without more tactile benefits like increased tourism, it seems most governments nowadays understand the value of cultural preservation. This isn’t to say governments of the past were always oblivious. One of the more influential places was the House of Wisdom, under the Abbasid Caliphate, which took a great interest in research and preservation. If you ever hear that Greek and Latin texts were saved by Muslims, this is what is meant—and it’s mostly true.
Suffice to say, the study of Classics is far from complete. It’s not a dead field. Earth shattering new discoveries are rare, but do come up every now and then. Occasionally some dude will accidentally discover a cache of ancient artifacts in his basement. Even after new sites, manuscripts, and artifacts are discovered, it takes time and effort to make sense of it all. Classics is far from static.
Which means I can write dick jokes for years to come!