Data and Dark Ages in Early Greece

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A couple weeks ago, I read a pretty cool article by Sarah Murray titled “Lights and Darks: Data, Labeling, and Language in the History of Scholarship on Early Greece,” and appearing in the most recent Hesperia. The article argues that using the term “Dark Ages” to describe Early Greece (say, 1200-800 BC) is in decline and increasingly problematic in its use to describe the period between the end of the Bronze Age and the Archaic era.

While that’s a fine argument to make (and predicated, in part, on the significant impact of Anthony Snodgrass’s influential The Dark Age of Greece (1971) and subsequent efforts to critique that term and that book), what is more significant and interesting is how she makes her argument. Murray compiles a massive dataset of works on Dark Age or Early Iron Age Greece and tracks the use of these two terms. This is no uncritical or automated data-mining expedition, though, she hand checks over 800 scholarly works to determine the context for the two terms and the rate of usage within the text (presumably this latter function could be automated to a significant degree). Moreover, she reads the incremental change in the use of the term against the total increase in scholarly publications in the archaeology of Greece for the same periods. This allowed her to measure whether the increase in one term or another was a genuine increase or just a manifestation of the increase in academic publishing.

Murray also consider the shift in terminology against changes in our knowledge of Early Iron Age Greece. By analyzing an equally massive dataset of archaeological discoveries in Greece, Murray is able to determine that while there are certainly more Early Iron Age sites known, generally speaking (with the obvious exception of truly spectacular sites like Lefkandi) they don’t necessarily tell us more about the period. The expansion of archaeological work on this period in Northern Greece and the discovery of small Early Iron Age sites through regional survey projects bolstered the number of known sites since the 1980s. 

Needless to say, such a substantial undertaking reinforces the view of my buddy Dimitri Nakassis that research is hard. Making a systematic and compelling argument whether qualitative or, as in this case, quantitative, involves digging through mountains of data, publications, and arguments. It also involves anticipating counter arguments and considering the complexities associated with analyzing and publishing a dataset. I’ll admit to getting a bit lost in the numbers at times, but the numbers themselves offer a compelling rhetorical display that whatever they might mean and represent, demonstrates a sort of depth of understanding of trends in the field. Finally, anyone who see digital humanities approaches as an easy way out, would be advised to consider this article and perhaps revise their definition of “easy.”

That being said, Murray’s conclusions are not entirely grounded in her dataset. She argues, for example, that the shift away from the term “Dark Ages” likely resulted, at least in part, from the growing critique of the term among scholars of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. This later Dark Age was often associated with a decline in culture and associated in its most nefarious use with ethnic change between Antiquity and Medieval worlds. It would appear that the criticism and eventual abandonment of the term Dark Age for the Early Medieval or Early Byzantine period spilled over into its use for the Early Iron Age. As Murray notes, however, the meaning of the two terms in these contexts were different. For the Early Iron Age the idea of a Dark Age related to the absence of sites and evidence for the transition from the Bronze Age to the Archaic period. In other words, the idea of the Dark Age played on the use of terms “light” and “dark” to assess the visibility of the periods rather than as value judgements. This use of dark and light is not unknown for the later Dark Ages, of course. In fact, it echoed how David Pettegrew used these ideas in his well-known article on the “Busy Countryside of Late Roman Corinth”: “Even in the wake of the 6th-century plague and at a time of alleged Slavic invasion, imported pottery was being used and deposited at some of the major rural sites on the Isthmus. Only in the 7th and 8th centuries do the lights of the Corinthian crossroads dim and go out.”

To understand the meaning of “Dark Ages” for either period, then, involves unpacking the context and the discursive clues for what the word means in various places. One scholars use of the word dark might be rather different from another’s and the term “Dark Ages” might remain quite elusive, slippery, and shifting. In the end, the term we used for the period probably doesn’t matter much for how archaeologists understand the Early Medieval or Early Iron Age, but it does impact how we situated our research within a broader conversation that includes both non-specialists and the general public. Whether we mean it or not, the terms light and dark carry a particular set of baggage (just as any words do including “early” and “late” do as well) that might limit how we can express the distinctiveness of any era.  

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