For historians, it is easy to view the past as a hermetically sealed world, like a petri dish that we can subject to tests and analyses without fear of contamination. However, this failure to admit that we are implicated in the very thing we are trying to study can allow ideas and practices to fester, unnoticed until some jolt forces us to confront them. Too often, however, this perpetuates problematic ideologies and ignores the fact that many of these historic sites have a modern presence — with modern people living modern lives — too. It wasn’t until I had the chance to travel to the places I had been studying that I received such a jolt that led me to question my role within my field, and my field’s role in the world.
Well, how did I get here?
On a hot afternoon in June of 2017, I found myself wandering over the remains of Alabanda, and around the small cluster of houses of the modern village of Doğanyurt that perch atop them. Alabanda was an ancient city in the Southwest corner of what is now Turkey, and through the centuries was inhabited by native peoples, Greeks and Romans before being abandoned.
When returning from my research in the field, I found some buildings, a tomb, a theatre, the course of a wall running up over the hillside; the blare of the call to prayer. For someone who studies the ancient Aegean World, it was an idyllic end to the day.
When I headed back to my rental car, I found a local farmer was watering a small herd of cows nearby. Summoning up all the Turkish I had learned over the past year, I greeted him with a simple “Merhaba!” (Hello).
He seemed nonplussed that I should know even that much Turkish, but we managed to strike up a very simple conversation. I asked him what he thought of the ruins, and the fact that he lived on top of the ruins of a 2000 year old city.
“Not much,” was his philosophical reply. He explained that he and his father had been employed to help excavate the city whenever the archaeologists came by, but beyond that, he did not profess any particular attachment to the heaps of stone and brick.
“And you,” he rejoined, “what brings you here?”
I struggled to formulate an answer. To be sure, in Turkish, I only had the vocabulary of an 8 year old, but as I stood there face to face with this man and his cows, it wasn’t my vocabulary that made it hard to formulate my response. What indeed was I, an American student from Suburban Philadelphia doing wandering around this out-of-the way village in southwest Turkey?
Reflecting on this experience has opened a whole host of other questions about my position in my field and in the world, as well as the responsibilities someone who studies people long dead has to the living.
Getting into Classics
Here at Brown, I am in the Ancient History Program, which is co-sponsored by the Classics and History departments. I identify more with the Classics department because that is the world I have lived in, well, half my life I suppose. I had the fortune of being able to take Latin classes starting in 7th grade, and even Ancient Greek in 9th. I stayed in Classics because I had good teachers and liked learning the languages. It wasn’t till the end of college that I really became interested in studying history, rather than literature.
More and more, I became interested in studying the native inhabitants of what is now modern Turkey. Now these peoples have long been known to Classicists but only indirectly: here is no surviving literary tradition in their own languages so much of what we think we know about them comes from Greek and Roman sources. Unfortunately, the one-sided and often prejudiced views of the Greeks and Romans seeped into later views of the natives (as Edward Said documents, Orientalism has a long pedigree).
The upshot is that we don’t actually know much about these peoples. With my research in the Ancient History Program here at Brown, however, I am trying to rectify that situation by looking at other kinds of evidence, such as material culture and the small amount of inscriptions written on durable materials that has survived. But in order to do this, I have had to step beyond the bounds of what most consider the traditional turf of Classics.
Classics is usually defined as the study of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, their history, culture, literature, etc. For centuries, it has been a cornerstone of elite, liberal education in the West. As such, it has remained a generally conservative field, slow to adopt innovations in theory and practice. Moreover, it has a lot of colonial, racist, and sexist baggage: the Spanish conquistadors saw themselves as new Romans, bringing civilization to the New World; the Nazis idealized the ancient Spartans as models for the Ubermensch; and the Alt-right is using Stoic philosophy to “prove” that women are irrational and emotionally unstable.
Scary stuff, and not something that makes one proud of one’s field. But as one who loves my field nevertheless, and wants to help it change for the better, I see setting a new research agenda as one small way to tackle this baggage. At least, this is what I thought as I headed to the coast of Turkey in 2017.
Colonization of the past
On the one hand, I felt I had to attempt to slough off my field’s colonialist baggage by focusing on other ancient Mediterranean cultures besides the Greeks or Romans. Post-colonial theory has made its way into Classics, and with it the realization that — surprise, surprise! — the Greeks and Romans may not be the best sources of information about all the peoples they traded with, fought, and conquered. So I hope that in my research, I am helping to de-center the Greeks and Romans.
But on the other hand, while trying to escape the colonialist perspective of our sources, am I just perpetuating the colonialist practices of western academia? One of my favorite quotes is L. P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” But just like any country, the past can and has been colonized. In this case, I am talking about the process by which American and European scholars claimed Greco-Roman history as their own, thus denying it to the modern inhabitants of places like Greece and Turkey. So, when I went to Turkey just to look at its ancient monuments, and asked people if they cared much about them, was I not just perpetuating this trend?
Fringes of Classics
Even apart from these questions, my choice to study the ancient inhabitants of Turkey has consequences for my possible career in Classics. Although the field is trying to evolve, I still feel very much like this research lies on the fringe. Even to my own colleagues I often have to explain a lot (like, why DID I take a class in Hittite, a language even older and deader than Latin?) And yea, it makes me nervous about the job market; what school needs someone to teach their students about the Lydians, Karians or Lykians — names no one has heard of? It may be hip to say you’re studying “ancient subalterns,” but can you make a career out of that in a field that in many ways is still focused on a canonical set of texts?
Now I admit, researching on the fringe has pushed me to make connections with other departments; I’ve taken classes in Archaeology and Assyriology and the connections I’ve made with people in those departments have meant the world to me and my research. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I came to Brown was the promise of low disciplinary walls — and in this I have not been disappointed. I do believe there is much to be gained in questioning disciplinary boundaries.
So, to end this the way I end all my papers: I don’t have any clear-cut answers.
As with any career, being an academic requires a balancing act between the practical and aspirational. What I can say is that it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work of being a grad student, focusing only on what you are doing and not thinking about why you are doing it and who it might affect.
At Alabanda, and everywhere else I visited in Turkey, I could not escape this question of who; for everywhere around me, people were making their living on its ruins, through tourism connected to it, and under biases baked into it. The question of who owns that past and who gets to shape it is far from academic.