Humanities

Review of Eric H. Cline, '1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed'

Intellectual Affairs

Brian Cranston’s recitation of “Ozymandias” in last year’s memorable video clip for the final season of Breaking Bad may have elided some of the finer points of Shelley's poem. But it did the job it was meant to do -- evoking the swagger of a grandiose ego, as well as time’s shattering disregard for even the most awe-inspiring claim to fame, whether by an ancient emperor or meth kingpin of the American Southwest.

But time has, in a way, been generous to the figure Shelley calls Ozymandias, who was not a purely fictional character, like Walter White, but rather the pharaoh Ramses II, also called User-maat-re Setep-en-re. (The poet knew of him through a less exact, albeit more euphonious, transcription of the name.) He ruled about one generation before the period that Eric H. Cline, a professor of classics and archeology at George Washington University, recounts in 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press).

Today the average person is reasonably likely to know that Ramses was the name of an Egyptian ruler. But very few people will have the faintest idea that anything of interest happened in 1177 B.C. It wasn't one of the 5,000 “essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts” constituting the “shared knowledge of literate American culture” that E.D Hirsch identified in his best-seller Cultural Literacy (1988), nor did it make it onto the revised edition Hirsch issued in 2002. Just over 3,000 years ago, a series of catastrophic events demolished whole cities, destroying the commercial and diplomatic connections among distinct societies that had linked up to form an emerging world order. It seems like this would come up in conversation from time to time. I suspect it may do so more often in the future.

So what happened in 1177 B.C.? Well, if the account attributed to Ramses III is reliable, that was the date of a final, juggernaut-like offensive by what he called the Sea Peoples. By then, skirmishes between Egypt and the seafaring barbarians had been under way, off and on, for some 30 years. But 1177 was the climactic year when, in the pharaoh’s words, “They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident…. ” The six tribes of Sea Peoples came from what Ramses vaguely calls “the islands.” Cline indicates that one group, the Peleset, are "generally accepted” by contemporary scholars "as the Philistines, who are identified in the Bible as coming from Crete.” The origins of the other five remain in question. Their rampage did not literally take the Sea Peoples around “the circuit of the earth,” but it was an ambitious military campaign by any standard.

They attacked cities throughout the Mediterranean, in places now called Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon, among others. About one metropolis Ramses says the Sea Peoples “desolated” the population, Ramses says, “and its land was like that which has never come into being.”

Cline reproduces an inscription that shows the Sea Peoples invading Egypt by boat. You need a magnifying glass to see the details, but the battle scene is astounding even without one. Imagine D-Day depicted exclusively with two-dimensional figures. The images are flat, but they swarm with such density that the effect is claustrophobic. It evokes a sense of terrifying chaos, of mayhem pressing in on all sides, so thick that nobody can push through it. Some interpretations of the battle scene, Cline notes, contend that it shows an Egyptian ambush of the would-be occupiers.

Given that the Egyptians ultimately prevailed over the Sea Peoples, it seems plausible: they would have had reason to record and celebrate such a maneuver. Ramses himself boasts of leading combat so effectively that the Sea Peoples who weren't killed or enslaved went home wishing they’d never even heard of Egypt: “When they pronounce my name in their land, then they are burned up.”

Other societies were not so fortunate. One of them, the Hittite empire, at its peak covered much of Turkey and Syria. (If the name seems mildly familiar, that may be because the Hittites, like the Philistines, make a number of appearances in the Bible.) One zone under Hittite control was the harbor city of Ugariot, a mercantile center for the entire region. You name it, Ugarit had it, or at least someone there could order it for you: linen garments, alabaster jars, wine, wheat, olive oil, anything in metal…. In exchange for paying tribute, a vassal city like Ugarit enjoyed the protection of the Hittite armed forces. Four hundred years before the Sea Peoples came on the scene, the king of the Hittites could march troops into Mesopotamia, burn down the city, then march them back home — a thousand miles each way — without bothering to occupy the country, “thus,” writes Cline, “effectively conducting the longest drive-by shooting in history.”

But by the early 12th century, Ugarit had fallen. Archeologists have found, in Cline’s words, "that the city was burned, with a destruction level reaching two meters high in some places.” Buried in the ruins are “a number of hoards … [that] contained precious gold and bronze items, including figurines, weapons and tools, some of them inscribed.” They "appear to have been hidden just before the destruction took place,” but "their owners never returned to retrieve them.” Nor was Ugarit ever rebuilt, which raises the distinct possibility that there were no survivors.

Other Hittite populations survived the ordeal but declined in power, wealth, and security. One of the maps in The Year Civilization Collapsed marks the cities around the Mediterranean that were destroyed during the early decades of the 12th century B.C. — about 40 of them in all.

The overview of what happened in 1177 B.C. that we’ve just taken is streamlined and dramatic — and way too much so not to merit skepticism. It’s monocausal. The Sea Peoples storm the beaches, one city after another collapses, but Ramses III survives to tell the tale…. One value of making a serious study of history, as somebody once said, is that you learn how things don’t happen.

Exactly what did becomes a serious challenge to determine, after a millennium or three. Cline’s book is a detailed but accessible synthesis of the findings and hypotheses of researchers concerned with the societies that developed around the Mediterranean throughout the second millennium B.C., with a special focus on the late Bronze Age, which came to an end in the decades just before and after the high drama of 1177. The last 20 years or so have been an especially productive and exciting time in scholarship concerning that region and era, with important work being done in fields such as archeoseismology and Ugaritic studies. A number of landmark conferences have fostered exchanges across micro-specialist boundaries, and 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed offers students and the interested lay antiquarian a sense of the rich picture that is emerging from debates among the ruins.

Cline devotes more than half of the book to surveying the world that was lost in or around the year in his title — with particular emphasis on the exchanges of goods that brought the Egyptian and Hittite empires, and the Mycenean civilization over in what we now call Greece, into closer contact. Whole libraries of official documents show the kings exchanging goods and pleasantries, calling each “brother,” and marrying off their children to one another in the interest of diplomatic comity. When a ship conveying luxury items and correspondence from one sovereign to another pulled in to dock, it would also carry products for sale to people lower on the social scale. It then returned with whatever tokens of good will the second king was sending back to the first — and also, chances are, commercial goods from that king’s empire, for sale back home.

The author refers to this process as “globalization,” which seems a bit misleading given that the circuits of communication and exchange were regional, not worldwide. In any case, it had effects that can be traced in the layers of scattered archeological digs: commodities and artwork characteristic of one society catch on in another, and by the start of the 12th century a real cosmopolitanism is in effect. At the same time, the economic networks encouraged a market in foodstuffs as well as tin — the major precious resource of the day, something like petroleum became in the 20th century.

But evidence from the digs also shows two other developments during this period: a number of devastating earthquakes and droughts. Some of the cities that collapsed circa 1177 may have been destroyed by natural disaster, or so weakened that they succumbed far more quickly to the marauding Sea Peoples than they would have otherwise. For that matter, it is entirely possible that the Sea Peoples themselves were fleeing from such catastrophes. “In my opinion,” writes Cline, “… none of these individual factors would have been cataclysmic enough on their own to bring down even one of these civilizations, let alone all of them. However, they could have combined to produce a scenario in which the repercussions of each factor were magnified, in what some scholars have called a ‘multiplier effect.’ … The ensuing ‘systems collapse’ could have led to the disintegration of one society after another, in part because of the fragmentation of the global economy and the breakdown of the interconnections upon which each civilization was dependent."

Referring to 1177 B.C. will, at present, only get you blank looks, most of the time. But given how the 21st century is shaping up, it may yet become a common reference point -- and one of more than antiquarian relevance.

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Essay on the way faculty members view research and teaching

When I began my career as a faculty member many decades ago, I had the good fortune to find myself in an especially distinguished department at an especially eminent research university. It was the custom of this department to gather for a faculty luncheon once a week and then to proceed to a departmental seminar in which we heard either from a visiting colleague or one of our own members. In the discussion period following the talk, questions generally had more to do with the ongoing research of the interlocutor than with the research of the speaker. Since all members of the department tended to be engaged in consequential research, the overall quality of the discussion was high -- although proceedings tended to take on a somewhat predictable, ritualized character

To be sure, department members were sincerely interested not only in their own research, but also in the research of their colleagues, and would often engage in conversation on these matters. This was known as discussing one’s “work.” Teaching was not considered a part of such “work,” even though many members of the department were dedicated, effective teachers. Teaching was basically a private matter between a faculty member and his or her students. I had the distinct sense that it would not be to my professional advantage to engage in discussion about my teaching; indeed, I sensed that it might be the conversational equivalent of a burp.

                                                                                                                                                              *****

Back in the 1950s, the sociologist Alvin Gouldner did some interesting work about the culture of faculty members and academic administrators at a liberal arts college. He was following up on Robert Merton’s general idea about the social significance of “latent,” as opposed to “manifest” roles – that is, how roles not recognized explicitly, and not carrying official titles, might be of central importance in social life.  In the academic context, manifest roles would include those of “dean,” “faculty member,” “student,” etc. The latent roles that Gouldner found especially important were those of “cosmopolitan” and “local”: roles that were not consciously recognized by overt labels, but which were consequential to the actual culture and social organization of the institution.

Cosmopolitans were those whose primary focus was their profession, as opposed to the institution where they were employed. Thus, a faculty member in this category would, for example, take a job at a more prestigious university that was stronger in his or her own field, even if it meant a lower salary. (Gouldner’s research was carried out at a time when it was apparently conceivable for a liberal arts college to offer a larger salary than a research university). Locals, on the other hand, were loyal first and foremost to the institution; they were usually not productive as scholars. At the time of Gouldner’s study, administrators generally fell into the category of locals.

Much has changed since that time. There has been, with a general move toward cosmopolitanism on the part of administrators, who have developed professional associations of their own and are more likely to go from one institution to another. As for faculty, their world has seen a widening gap between elite cosmopolitans and indentured locals -- adjuncts tied to low-paying jobs only relatively close to home, not the kind of locals who have been given any reason to develop institutional loyalty.

A question, then, for faculty members today is how best to balance concern for their profession with concern for their institution. A likely way is to care seriously and deeply for one’s students – since they are, after all, a major part of one’s vocation, in addition to paying most of the bills. And this means taking a more intentional, sophisticated approach to teaching.

To be sure, different institutions have different missions. Research universities, in particular, are crucial to the advancement of knowledge and must thus concern themselves with leading-edge science and scholarship. Even here, however, not all graduate students are themselves headed for major research universities -- far from it. Thus, graduate faculties in research universities are coming to feel responsible for preparing students for the future careers they will actually have.  In part, this will mean exploring possibilities beyond the academy. It will also mean creating effective programs for preparing graduate students as teachers for a wide range of students.

The development of such programs has been a focus for the Teagle Foundation in recent years. This has involved supporting universities in their efforts to expose graduate students to what cognitive psychology has taught us about learning; to the pedagogical approaches and styles that have proven most effective; and to which forms of assessment are most relevant to the improvement of teaching. More generally, it means leading faculty to feel that they are not only a community of scholars, but also a community of teachers.

It has been suggested that the preparation of graduate students for teaching would be well-served if there were different faculty “tracks,” with some department members being primarily responsible for preparing researchers while others are primarily responsible for preparing teachers. While it is certainly true that not all members of a department have to make the same kind of contribution to the overall success of the program, formalizing such a separation between research and teaching would simply reinforce the caste system already in place -- not to mention the fact that many distinguished researchers are also exceptional teachers and that student engagement in research is an important teaching strategy.  So, while there might be some value in having a pedagogical specialist (or more) on the roster, it is not desirable to have a tracking system that segregates teaching from research.

Here, then, is the general goal: just as faculty members would never think of being unaware of what peers are doing in the same field of research, so they should feel a comparable impulse to be aware of what their colleagues are doing in their areas of teaching. And thus, the world of higher education can become even more a true community.
 

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.

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Essay on the importance of academics learning how to delegate

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Tyro Tracts

Faculty members with long to-do lists need to think about when and how to trust others with key tasks, writes Nate Kreuter.

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Essay on the flaws with peer review

What follows is a true story.

A junior scholar had been waiting months for a response on an article she had submitted to a good journal. One day she happened to be visiting a colleague’s office, as the colleague was bemoaning being hassled by an editor, having missed the deadline to “review this damn paper.” The title was visible on the colleague’s computer screen. “But that’s my article!” the junior scholar cried. There followed a moment of rather awkward silence, followed by some nervous laughter. The colleague, shamefaced about his tardiness as a reviewer, hastily dispatched a friendly critique of the piece to the editor. 

If the colleague hadn’t realized the article was written by someone he knew, he probably would have put it off even further. In the ideal world, the review process is perfect, but unfortunately it involves the actions of humans.

We’ve all received scathing reviews of our pieces by anonymous reviewers. (Or at least I have. Perhaps the gentle reader has only ever received fulsome praise for his or her scholarly efforts, and if that is you, possibly you should stop reading here.)

But for those academic mere mortals still reading, we all know the harsh review, which often contains unfair criticism. (Exhibit A: “The author of this article did not make reference to Smith’s groundbreaking research in the field” -- never mind that Smith’s research has yet to be published, and there is no chance, none whatever, that the author of this significant piece is the person writing the review). Or the more usual reviewer disagreement: Referee 1 says the article has too much brown and not enough purple, Referee 2 says it has too much purple and not enough brown, and Referee 3 (to whom it has been sent to break this deadlock of opinion) says that this interesting article on feudal Japan doesn’t include enough about Richard Nixon. The ideal behind blind review places the reviewer as impartial Justice, but it is much easier to swing a sword than look at a scale when you’re blindfolded.

After a particularly blistering referee’s report (I find these best read with a bloody mary in hand; the reader’s experiences may vary), I’m sure I’m not the only one who has fantasized about kicking that referee’s shins at a conference. Of course I don’t know whom to kick. The distressing thing is there’s a good chance they know who I am.

Somewhere back in the mists of academic idealism, there was a point where scholars’ work was unknown until they presented it for publication. But now that we all leave trails of our research all over the web, the idea behind “blind” reviews seems quite naive. Googling a title will often yield a conference program, or a researcher’s departmental website. How many academics are so pure in their approach that they would AVOID looking up the topic of the paper under review? After all, it may be relevant to catch up on other literature on the topic in order to situate your review of the article in question.

For those of us who work in broad areas, it’s still the case that we will be asked to review (and be reviewed by) people completely unknown to us. Part of blind review’s theory is to avoid the conflicts of refereeing the work of friends (or enemies). But those in small subfields can already guess pretty closely who wrote an article they are asked to review. How many of us wouldn’t be more kind in a review of a piece we knew was written by a friend?

Which brings me to the issue of workshopping papers in public. I’ve heard people wonder whether doing so damages peer review. To which I would respond, no more than the Internet has damaged it already. With two articles of mine, I tried an experiment: posting my drafts on Google docs. I then posted links on Twitter and asked for anyone who was willing to comment.

(I realize that in STEM fields, posting paper drafts on ArXiv and other repositories for comment is more common, but in the humanities we don’t have this type of culture. We simply informally ask friends for comments.)

Getting colleagues from around the world to comment on my work made it stronger. And rather than feeling guilty about buttonholing the same few overworked friends to look at an article draft, the infinite generosity of my Twitter followers gave me volunteers. And they wrote constructive, useful things.

Some time ago, Daniel Lemire (a computer science professor at the Université du Québec) made the argument that blind review should be eliminated because work should be evaluated as part of a scholar’s broader career.

I’m not sure I agree with that, not least because I have my suspicions this already happens to the benefit of some Silverbacks, who manage to get pieces published that, had they landed on the editor’s desk as the work of an unknown Ph.D. student, would have been eighty-sixed in short order. However, I think it’s right to wonder how the current situation is actually operating (as opposed to how it “should”).

Lemire raises some interesting research that suggests rather than helping those outside the academy get published (which in theory it should, as supposedly the work itself is being judged rather than the author) in fact it works against them. Blind peer review is the standard by which we mark the quality and rigor of our scholarship. I do believe research needs impartial vetting but I’m not sure the current system should be it.

[Wondering about what happened to my friend’s article, mentioned at the start? It was not accepted by the journal, as the other referee had written a much harsher assessment.]

Katrina Gulliver is a lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales. Her site is http://www.katrinagulliver.com and you can find her most of the time on Twitter @katrinagulliver.

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Kansas faculty finalize social media policy proposal

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The Kansas workgroup tasked to create a new social media policy doubles down on academic freedom in its finalized proposal. But will the regents who wanted to regulate social media use go along?

Facing legislative pressure, South Carolina Upstate calls off lesbian humor performance

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U. of South Carolina Upstate -- facing legislative anger over planned performance by lesbian humorist -- calls off event.

Essay on mentorship styles in higher education

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Cheryl E. Ball explains how a recent online debate missed truly important issues about mentorship.

 

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Ryan Budget Calls for Cuts to Pell Grant, Elimination of NEH

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House Republicans unveil their 2015 budget proposal, which calls for a 10-year freeze on the maximum Pell Grant and would eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Essay on how to deal with tenure rejection

Trish Roberts-Miller shares what she wishes she had understood at a difficult point in her career.

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Essay on a literary festival in India and the state of the humanities

Are you frightened by shrinking enrollments in literature courses? Does the crisis in the humanities induce heart palpitations? Do you experience nausea when reading about the decline of reading? To anyone suffering from these symptoms, I recommend a rejuvenating travel to the East: attend the Jaipur Literary Festival.

The festival begun less than 10 years ago as part of a heritage festival in this medium-sized town in Rajasthan, about 170 miles from Delhi. The brainchild of William Darlrymple, a British writer on India, and Namita Gokhale, an Indian writer and publisher, it has become one of the places where one can watch world literature happen.

The road to Jaipur is a nightmare. Cars come at you the wrong way, flashing their lights; trucks decorated with beads and murals demand that you honk at them ("Horn Please!"), as if drivers here need that encouragement. Seemingly unperturbed by the cacophony are the animals wandering blithely across the road: cows, camels, goats, donkeys, elephants, sheep, hogs, and dogs. Literature? Here?

As it happens, only humans attend the festival, loads of them: 1 lakh, as one organizer boasts, using the convenient word for 100,000 that has become part of South Asian English. Jaipur in January has become the favorite watering hole for publishers, agents, and authors. Tourists following the endorsement of their Lonely Planet guides join in. But above all, the festival is for a species that might as well be called The People. I talked to a car mechanic who has used a neighbor's motorcycle to drive in from the countryside; an engineering student who has taken a day off from work; and a rickshaw driver who combines business and pleasure. "Obama — very good; Bush — very bad; is a monkey face," he screams as he honks his way through the crowds.

Some of the people are attracted by celebrity. Last year, Oprah Winfrey came, causing a spike in attendance ("Oprah very nice lady — dark skin like me" the rickshaw driver says). Others seek out Bollywood stars and talk show hosts. The inside crowd is scavenging for invitations to after-parties and private dinners at luxurious retreats in the countryside with an intensity that I have seen trumped only by Cannes. But amidst all the jostling, literature holds its place, and most people have made the journey to be in its elusive presence.

Not all the buzz has been positive. Two years ago the festival went through its most severe crisis when Muslim groups protested the planned attendance of Salman Rushdie, whose novel Satanic Verses is still banned in India. When Rushdie decided instead to Skype-in his talk, a dangerous-looking crowd gathered outside the festival, and there were rumors of planned violence. The organizers decided to pull the plug, but a few speakers recited from the novel anyway, an illegal act that ultimately forced them to flee the country.

Few people mention that crisis this year, although it is not forgotten; here and there one hears thinly veiled concerns about freedom of speech in India ("You mean Rushdie" one speaker says; "I am not afraid to say his name"). But the prevailing atmosphere is one of celebration. People eat from stands offering delicious street food and drink spiced Masala chai served in traditional clay cups. They chat and watch and mill about. At night, the festival turns into a huge music stage, with bands from India to Morocco enlivening the night.

And of course there are the talks, readings, and discussions, which take place in large tents. It's not always easy to hear and see; there are just too many people. But it doesn't matter. The official program feels almost like an afterthought or rather like the occasion that allows the festival to happen. What matters is being here, being part of the celebration of literature. It's a true festival.

Some of the discussions up on stage are predictable anyway. There is the well-meaning hand wringing (in English), about the dominance of global English and complaints (by Americans) about the dominance of American fiction. In the good old theory days, we used to call this "performative contradiction"; now the technical term my students use is "ironic." But in any case, the festival itself tells a different story. There are relatively few Americans and instead plenty of Brits and N.R.I.s, non-resident Indians, in addition to South Asian writers.

What does world literature looks like, Jaipur-style? What hits you first is the exciting richness of India's diverse language traditions from Tamil in the South to Himalayan languages in the north, cutting across religious affiliations. Salma, who writes under that name about growing up in a Muslim community in a small South Indian village and who has become a strong voice in Tamil poetry, is something of a poster child for this form of diversity at the festival.

Another theme that emerges is travel writing, especially the strong British tradition, which is relatively unknown in the U.S. The biographers of Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh Fermor, the two paradigmatic 20th-century travel writers, are in attendance, as well as Geoff Dyer, a genius at the deadpan takedown (when a panelist "admits" that he would stop writing if offered a large sum, Dyer starts bargaining him down and offers to take up a collection). In response to the travel theme, William Sutcliffe, a British novelist, makes a strong case for the travel novel as the master genre of world literature today.

What is most striking, perhaps, is the absence of writers from China, India's Asian rival. Many here see America's exclusive focus on China as too one-sided. "It would make much more sense for the world's oldest democracy to forge closer connections to India," Maya Jasanoff, a historian, observes. The festival is a reminder just how much India and the U.S. share. They are the two largest democracies and pride themselves on their diversity; and they both came into being through hard-won independence movements from the British Empire, to whose vestiges they remain tied, above all through language.

India's ubiquitous call centers are only one part of this story; the other, is literature. It is difficult to imagine something like the Jaipur Literary Festival in China, and not just because of state censorship there. Jaipur is made possible by the democratic diversity of India (despite its limits, as the Rushdie case shows), but also by the deep roots that tie India to the Anglophone world.

The animals and the gridlock on the road make one worry about the limits of India's economic development, but the festival is a reminder of its cultural power.

 

Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English at Harvard University and general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature. He is at work on a travel book about world literature.

 

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