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Conversations: Monuments and Memory Volume 58 Number 4, July/August 2005

The importance of knowing how the ancients viewed their own past


Susan E. Alcock is an archaeologist at the University of Michigan specializing in the eastern Roman Empire. The recipent of a MacArthur "genius grant," she is the author of numerous books, including Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscapes, Monuments, and Memories (2002). She spoke with ARCHAEOLOGY about ancient memory, empires, and changing classical archaeology.

Sue Alcock at Zorakarer, the "Armenian Stonehenge" (Courtesy John F. Cherry)

Most archaeologists are content to study the past, but you're interested in how ancient people thought about their own pasts. Why study how the Greeks remembered their ancestors?
In some ways it's a subject dangerous to ignore. Because the more you think about it, the more you realize that the way people view their past affects how they treat its remains: what they preserve, what they destroy, what they cherish, what they trash. That filter can impact the way we see the archaeological record today. Also, it is just such a cool question to ask as we study our past: How did the ancients contemplate their past? What are the similiarities? Where are the differences?

You dedicated your book on Greek monuments and ancient memory to Fenway Park. Are you from Boston?
I grew up in Massachusetts. Here I was writing this book about memory and monuments, and I thought about places that made a difference in my life. Fenway Park was a no-brainer. And that was before the World Series!

Yes, the end of the evil Yankees Empire! You've done so much work on Greece under Roman rule. What's behind your interest in the archaeology of imperialism?
I suspect it goes back to when I went over to Great Britain for graduate work. As an American living there in the Reagan-Thatcher years, you couldn't help but think about the rise and fall of empires, and how imperial systems impacted people's lives worldwide. That was when I first became interested in what happened in Greece when it became part of the Roman Empire.

Hasn't that period been largely ignored by archaeologists?
In the past, when most scholars got to the period when Greece became part of the Roman imperial system, they just checked out, because that wasn't what Greece was supposed to be all about. Greece is the land of freedom and independence. So Roman Greece was in the scholarly tank for quite a while. Now, with more interest in the nature of empires, that's changed.

You have a project starting this summer in Armenia. How is working there different from Greece?
The landscape is quite different from Greece--more mountains, so I'll have to get in shape fast. And most of the archaeology done there so far has also been in the Soviet tradition. So techniques that are quite familiar today in the Mediterranean, such as regional survey, are unfamiliar in the Caucasus. On the other hand, the local archaeologists have wonderful knowledge and control of, for example, their ceramic data. So we hope to marry these two traditions, and do something new and very exciting. Another appeal to working in Armenia is that there are wonderful maps. One advantage of being part of an imperial system--the Soviet imperial system--is that Armenia has been mapped to death. And there are good satellite data too. Because while the Soviets were mapping, the Americans were taking a lot of shots of the "Evil Empire."

So the Cold War had a positive legacy for archaeology.
Something good did come out of it.

What initially drew you to Armenia?
Armenia is very interesting for anyone intrigued with the archaeology of memory because it's a country that has a very strong sense of itself through time--Armenians would say it's the first Christian nation, for instance. One tempting thing about our project is that in Armenia there hasn't been that much scholarly attention paid to the Hellenistic, Roman, and Parthian periods--which are what interest me as a classical archaeologist.

Classical archaeology is often thought of as conservative and elitist. Do you think it has moved away from that stereotype?
It is much more open to new ideas and new techniques than it was in the past. If you do survey archaeology, people don't look at you cross-eyed anymore. But old-style classical archaeology still has authority in some places. The younger generation has to keep pushing toward more collaboration with archaeologists elsewhere, and to make sure it isn't something only rich kids can study. But I'm optimistic. I just finished teaching Roman archaeology to 200 kids here at Michigan. A few fell asleep. But most really enjoyed it. People tend to feel this real hook to archaeology, especially to the Greeks and Romans. Classical archaeologists should thank their lucky stars that that's the case and foster it. Because that's what's going to keep our field alive.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America