Sunday, 16 November 2014

Snodfest: the children of the Classics revolution

How do you define a good professor? I got one answer last weekend in the 80th birthday conference of Anthony Snodgrass. It is clear that he did not only write groundbreaking books and start a revolution within classical archaeology by advocating survey archaeology and not concentrating on vase painting, but also nurtured a legion of students many of whom are nowadays in prominent positions all around the world. They were prepared to (wo)man three separate organising committees – one in Britain, one in Holland and one in America. Then they all flew to Britain and spent one weekend in Cambridge giving first-class papers and seemed to have great fun throughout. I know – I paid for the Saturday dinner and saw how the people in my table seized the moment to chat with their friends they had not seen socially for ages.

James Whitley, Sara Owen and Lisa Nevett present Snoddy with the book

When I heard who were organising this conference, I knew I had to be there in order to witness it, even if I had been at the Department of Archaeology and not the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge. However, I remembered a gentle, kindly spoken man during his last years in the high office at the turn of the millennium – and now all these big names were coming to one place to celebrate him. At that time I did not guess just how much of a warm group hug it all was going to be. The students and colleagues had not only prepared one, but two volumes of papers – one from his students and one from the colleagues – all given to the birthday boy in a preliminary format. An old mountaineering friend had painted a landscape to commemorate the occasion. This was even if his 90-odd years did not allow him to come to the occasion himself. It also turned out that these ‘big names’, such as Susan Alcock and Ian Morris, were good company and I had splendid time in the pub and in the ‘fun table’. I now owe Susan a pint and hope to repay one day, if I ever get to an AIA (American Institute of Archaeology) conference.

The Saturday dinner in the Cripps Court

The conference itself was top notch and all the people had taken care of preparing something special. Instead of carting to the pulpit the same old, same old, all were either presenting new research or drawing long-term conclusions out of their old projects. Thus, we heard John Bintliff to draw together 30 years of the Boeotia survey, peppered with delightful photographs from the 1980s. David Small discussed his new ideas about applying complexity theory to pre-Classical Greece – work so recent that the graphs presented only the results of a preliminary work from the Iron Age Knossos – not that he had remembered to put the titles in the graph (thus, I had an easy question to pop in the lunch table). Rolf Schneider discussed his and his student's reconstruction of the Phrygian sculpture programme of Basilica Aemilia – a piece of research that only have become possible lately when the collection of the marble fragments have been available for the scholars. Alexandra Coucouzeli discussed the potential gods in the shrine at Zagora on Andros. The absolute revelation was Tom Gallant’s project in contemporary or near contemporary archaeology in Greece, combining archaeology of field terraces and mills to the archive study of migrant flows from the Ottoman times to the free Greece. He also explained that his book on a murder on a Greek island will be made as a Hollywood movie. Why study property deeds, when you can look at a cold case straight from the archives!

Bintliff on the Boeotia survey

I also learnt more about the references to archaisms in Hellenistic art, how to study manuring in the Mediterranean and agencies presented in the pre-Classical times by a krater and a pithos. I also managed to behave like a true Oxbridge brat. The constant travelling and a late arrival night before and early departure in the morning had resulted in me being a bit zonked, so I ended up suggesting slightly in a wrong tone of voice (and actually not only slightly, but in a full-on feisty duelling mode) to de Polignac that Mill and Rajala’s ceramiscene actually had already brought the suitable concepts into the interpretation of the hinterland of a polis in Italian archaeology. Even if I tried to pacify him later by saying that I do agree with his interpretations and admire him very much, he did seem to stare me with an icy look the reminder of the time. I feel guilty now, since how much literature in Greek archaeology I have time to read?

Snoddy's postscript

Those two and half days were memorable and provided food for thought for weeks to come. After all the talks Snoddy asked the younger generation to carry the torch and remember that agriculture was during the pre-Classical times 10 times more important than commerce and the painted pottery is 10 times more important to classical archaeologists than for the people in Greece or Etruria. Slowly I have realised that with my survey work, agricultural modelling and archaeological computing, I am a Cambridge girl and actually I am part of the revolution.

Things seem always happen to me. Luckily, nothing truly serious, but again one of those unexpected little irritations and puzzlements of life. When all was over in the Snodfest, I realised that my coat had vanished. Somebody else had used the hanger I had laid my coat on in the morning and in the rack next to mine, there was another beige trench coat. Unfortunately, although it was of a more expensive make, it was a full-length male one and of no use for the shorty me. I can only commiserate the person who apparently was wearing a suit and ran away before lunch to the train station or airport – and only too late noticed that instead of his well-made and beautiful coat, he had grabbed my old £25 Tesco sad-excuse-for-a-coat that was in a desperate need of a good wash and had had half of the buttons replaced by more or less similar kind of buttons of variable colours. Good for making a bad Columbo impression but not for much else. I only still had it for that short month-or-so-long period in Stockholm between summer and winter, when it is not yet cold enough for a woolly winter coat – with no time to spare for coat shopping. Any way, the fancy coat was still in the Cripps building on Tuesday when I was in Cambridge and checked if my coat had come back. If somebody overseas is moaning about grabbing an awful coat, he can contact the porters at the Magdalene college Cambridge!

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