Monday, March 23, 2015


Jonathan M. Hall, Artifact and Artifice: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. xviii, 248. ISBN 9780226096988. $45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Andrea Guzzetti, San José State University (

Version at BMCR home site


The relationship between textual and archaeological evidence in the study of classical antiquity has always been complex, being based on a web of reasoning processes and assumptions not always formulated clearly. The encounter of the two fields involves epistemological issues (which discipline establishes criteria to evaluate interpretations for which?), but also dynamics of power and influence, both in academia and in the world at large, which affect very concrete experiences, such as access to funding and the use of the past to advance political agendas. In his new book, Jonathan Hall seeks to untangle at least some strands of this web, an attempt even more timely now that the discussion about the advantages and the limitations of different sources of evidence tends to embrace other disciplines besides philology and archaeology.

The book consists of eleven chapters. Except for the first and the last, which contain the introduction and the conclusions, each chapter is dedicated to a scholarly debate characterized by uneasy attempts to reconcile texts and artifacts, with a roughly equivalent division of the case studies between the Greek (chapters 2-6) and the Roman world (chapters 7-10). Within each of the two major sections, the topics are presented in chronological order.

In the introduction (chapter 1) Hall provides a historical overview of the development of classical archaeology and of its connections with philology and history of art. The stages highlighted are largely the usual ones—the rediscovery of the ancient world in the Renaissance, the enthusiasm towards Greek art spurred by Winckelmann and by the arrival of Greek originals in the major European capitals, the "big digs" of the nineteenth century, the emergence of prehistory as archaeology without texts—but some phenomena that are less frequently part of this narrative receive attention, too. The second half of the chapter, in particular, includes a section on archaeological theory and its apparently limited impact on classical archaeology, with a particular emphasis on processualism and postprocessualism. Hall justifies the attention paid to these theoretical developments by arguing that they have more points of contact with his subject than one could imagine. In particular, he remarks that one of the consequences of the emphasis placed by postprocessualists on the notion of context is that they "have turned back to history" (15).

As said above, the main body of the book is dedicated to a series of scholarly debates in which literary sources and material remains have been employed to build a unified picture. In each chapter, Hall first summarizes the development of the argument and its primary aspects, then examines the assumptions on which the various positions taken by scholars are based, trying to uncover what is the actual evidence for each. A section at the end of each chapter contains the literary and epigraphical texts (in translation) pertinent to the topic just discussed. The subjects of the various chapters are: the utterances of the Pythia at Delphi and their causes (chapter 2); the temples of Eretria and the Persian destruction of the city (chapter 3); the Oath of Plataia and the Peace of Kallias (chapter 4); the structures in the Athenian Agora supposedly connected with the imprisonment and the death of Sokrates (chapter 5); the tombs at Vergina and their occupants (chapter 6); the evidence for the city of Romulus in Rome (chapter 7); the establishment of the Roman Republic (chapter 8); the supposed austerity of the House of Augustus (chapter 9); and the connection between the architectural and human remains found beneath St. Peter's and the apostle (chapter 10).

A detailed presentation of each case study is beyond the scope of this review. One can note, however, that the issues identified in them fall within a small number of recurring categories. The most pervasive motif, and the one which characterizes the debates better known to non-specialists, is the "search for the individual," that is, the propensity to search the archaeological record for tangible marks of figures or phenomena that have come to occupy a central place in Western culture. The attempt to utilize literary sources to address chronological problems in archaeology, such as gaps in architectural or stylistic sequences, or suggested changes of date for monuments, is another common theme in the book.

In the conclusion (chapter 11), some crucial problems that have emerged in the preceding chapters are laid out more explicitly and discussed in detail. They include the "positivist fallacy" (the assumption that statements in the texts and features of the archaeological record are related and that the two kinds of evidence can be directly employed to elucidate each other, to the detriment of other possible explanations); the tendency, on the part of both ancient historians and classical archaeologists, to treat the evidence from the opposite field as unidimensional, ignoring the complex processes which lead to the formation of the historiographical and of the archaeological record; the persistence of the idea that archaeology can provide objective and definitive elements of proof for or against a particular claim; and the propensity to ground political statements on such supposedly objective evidence. Lastly, Hall considers whether, given these limitations, it is still possible for ancient historians to benefit from the results of classical archaeology and whether there are ways to bridge the gap that the evolution of both disciplines has created. The answer is that such a goal seems hard to achieve in the present situation, given the different training requirements and the frequent institutional separation of experts in the two fields, and that it requires the creation and maintenance of channels of communication between them. The book ends with a list of the ancient authors mentioned in the text, a concise glossary, a bibliography and an index.

A number of interesting traits characterize the book. In several chapters, for example, after summarizing the various historical traditions pertinent to the subject at hand, Hall divides them into discrete elements and compares them by placing them on a grid. This approach serves to stress the point that in many cases the "tradition" which archaeology is called to uphold is actually one among many and often contradictory accounts, so that the expectation to find tangible proof of it is questionable from the beginning. Hall's method is not very different from the techniques employed in the investigation of myths, for example as a preliminary step in the construction of structuralist interpretations or as a quick way to examine variations in a tale across time. Given that this kind of analysis has its roots in Saussurean linguistics, it is not surprising to find references to the concepts of langue and parole in the conclusions, used to reinforce the idea that textual accounts represent one form of expression of a larger discursive system and must be examined with an eye to that system rather than being simply juxtaposed to other expressions, which may derive from very different parameters.

A second observation is that the case studies examined by Hall vary widely in terms of popular awareness. Some of the issues are known to the general public and possibly constitute matters for intense political debates, while others remain largely a matter of discussion for specialists. While it would be easy to think that accounts in popular media are more exposed to superficiality and looseness, Hall's book has the merit to show that, as debates grow more tangled, it becomes easier even for scholars to accept or reject a certain interpretation without recalling the assumptions and the reasoning process behind it.

Given that no category of observers seems immune from the risk of embracing or questioning a hypothesis without fully understanding its origins and its evolution, and considering the emphasis Hall places on contextualizing the evidence, whether textual or archaeological, it is somewhat surprising to notice the limited space dedicated to the sociopolitical implications of certain interpretations of the past. Hall is aware of the echoes that such debates can create beyond the scholarly community, but a specific treatment of them is provided only for well-known cases, such as the tombs at Vergina.

Elsewhere, only scattered hints of these ramifications are dropped into the text. The chapter on "The City of Romulus," for example, opens with the mention of a 2005 article published in Rome's main newspaper which reports on the results of the excavations conducted by Andrea Carandini in the Roman forum (119). According to the piece, the discoveries confirmed the traditions about Romulus and the birth of the city in 753 BC, a conclusion which crowns a series of links between previously unearthed remains and elements of the Romulean legends made by the excavator. After summarizing these stages of research, Hall comments on the weight placed on the literary sources by a scholar known for giving more credit to archaeological than to textual evidence (122). This turn of perspective, however, is presented as if Carandini had reached it on his own, without examining what other factors could have influenced it. One could ask, for example, what role the Italian mainstream press had had in shaping a favorable atmosphere for such an interpretation, what place the figure of Romulus has occupied in the public imagination of post-war Italy, after the abuses of the Fascist period, and what practical effects his evocation has or could have, for example regarding the management of ancient cultural heritage in Italy.

In conclusion, the author provides a careful and informative introduction to the case studies, but the true value of the book lies in the analysis of the flaws or weak points that characterize the research about each subject. As Hall himself points out (xv), the book is most useful for advanced undergraduates and graduate students, but its intended readership includes informed non-specialists. While he recommends it primarily to students of ancient history, Artifact and Artifice could be effectively used in any classics or classical archaeology program to build awareness of methodological problems related to the use of texts and artifacts as evidence. Its use in the classroom might require some work on the part of the instructor, especially if he or she wants to build an itinerary centered on a particular question, such as the "search for the individual." The newly discovered tomb at Amphipolis, and the readiness with which names have been flung around in connection with it, indicate that concerns about such interpretative processes are by no means pointless or outdated.

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