A Possible Path Forward. A Review of Sarah F. Derbew’s UNTANGLING BLACKNESS IN GREEK ANTIQUITY

When you come to a fork in the road, take it. American baseball legend Yogi Berra was supposedly talking about how he gets to his house, but this Berra-ism applies to Classical studies and Ancient history as well.

The origins of Classical studies and Ancient history are similar to those of history in general. White European men of the eighteenth century studied the past in search of their own reflection. Some of them searched among the civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean and believed they found it in the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Fast forward approximately 250 years, and their ideas are still with us. The mainstream view of the Ancients remains that of a prequel and model for Western hegemony.

The mainstream view of the Ancients continues to be represented among Classic scholars and Ancient historians; however, a shift has been happening over the past few decades, a shift that recently has picked up speed. Ancient Greek and Rome are no longer seen as the role models that we should base our own society upon. The Ancient Greeks were as influenced by Persia and Egypt as they were ingenious in their own inventions. The marble statues that the eighteenth-century founders of Classical studies used as evidence of Rome and Greece as white civilizations were in fact painted in gaudy colors. The Ancient world was a world of prejudice and slavery, but didn’t judge based on skin color.

The shift that is happening in Classical studies and Ancient history causes conflict among scholars. Meanwhile, the assault on the humanities that is ongoing in the United States at the moment means that flagship departments see their funding reduced or cut entirely. As a result, the fields of Classical studies and Ancient history are faced with an existential crisis. If the fields survive, what will they be?

Sarah F. Derbew’s book Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2022) clears a possible path forward. The book bursts out of the gate already in its introduction by taking to task bigoted and presentist interpretations of skin color in the Ancient world by scholars of the past as well as the present. Following the introduction is a chapter that analyzes the janiform, or two-faced, drinking cups known as kantharos that were used during symposia, or drinking parties, in Ancient Athens. Derbew’s analysis of the racialization of these cups by scholars of later times slices and dices their bigoted projections with such precision that nothing but strips are left when she is done. Derbew then sets her sights on how to read ancient literary texts such as the Lucian satires and Heliodorus’s novel Aithiopika in the twenty-first century.

The book’s theoretical framework is that of Critical Race Theory. Though mainly a theoretical framework to help explain how modern American society is shaped by perceptions of race and ethnicity, Derbew shows how Critical Race Theory can be used for a twenty-first century reading of ancient literature, thus ensuring its continued relevance while simultaneously steering Classical studies and Ancient history further down the path away from their racist roots.

For historians Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity provides little new information. Throughout the book, Derbew concludes what is already known: in the Ancient world skin color did not carry meaning when categorizing people. On the other hand, for the deconstruction of modern racist projections onto the Ancient world and for the future study of Ancient literature, Derbew’s contribution is invaluable.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Interview with Heather Camlot for Foreword Reviews

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Camlot, author of The Prisoner and the Writer, for Foreword Reviews. The Prisoner and the Writer is a children’s book that tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair, an antisemitic scandal that rocked France during the final years of the nineteenth century. The interview has been given a powerful introduction by editor-in-chief Matt Sutherland.

If you want to read my interview with Heather Camlot, please click here.

If you want to read my review of Heather Camlot’s The Prisoner and the Writer, please click here.

Enjoy!

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Popular Vikings for the International Masses. Thoughts After a Visit to Sweden’s The Viking Museum

Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about my visit to the Museum of Wrecks in Stockholm, Sweden, which opened its doors in the fall of 2021. Next door to the Museum of Wrecks is another museum with ambitions to widen the visitor’s experience, namely The Viking Museum.

The Viking Museum originally opened its doors in 2017 under the name Vikingaliv. In 2019, it rebranded itself and took the name The Viking Museum with the intention of catering to international tourists.

While the intention is to cater to international tourists, the goal of The Viking Museum is not to become another tourist trap that trades off Viking-inspired kitsch. Instead, the goal is to present the Viking Age from a scholarly, scientific, and critical point of view. The idea is to present the Viking Age the way it was lived in Scandinavia with people struggling to make a living while a select few occasionally went on raids abroad or permanently moved to another place.

I went to The Viking Museum with great curiosity because I wanted to see how (if) they had managed to reach their goal.

I went to The Viking Museum with great curiosity because I wanted to see how (if) they had managed to reach their goal. The first thing I encountered when I stepped inside the doors was a flight of stairs with a timeline. On each step was a year that counted down to the beginning of the Viking Age at the top of the stairs. My stomach sank when I noticed two grammatical errors in the sentences in English as I walked up the steps, and then it sank further when the final step announced that the Viking Age began with the raid on Lindisfarne in 793. Placing the starting point of the Viking Age at Lindisfarne is the Anglo-centric view of the Vikings without connection to the Viking Age in Scandinavia.

Notice the grammatical errors on the two top steps of the stairs: “Vikings founds Dublin”
and “The Viking Age begin.”
Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

At the top of the stairs, I entered the exhibit proper. The trepidation I felt while walking up the stairs disappeared when among the first things I saw was a timeline with a discussion about what was the Viking Age that also placed the Viking Age in a wider world context. I then moved on and encountered the life-size reconstruction of a Viking Age man based on a tenth-century skeleton excavated at the town of Sigtuna just north of Stockholm. The Viking Museum has named him Leifur.

Leifur.
Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

Once again, the exhibit goes against the grain because Leifur is not your stereotypical tall, muscular, and bearded Viking ready for battle. He is a regular man of medium-height, not particularly bulky. He is a farmer as most Viking Age Scandinavians were. But based on what we know about Viking Age society, he was a farmer ready to use violence when necessary.

Once again, the exhibit goes against the grain because Leifur is not your stereotypical tall, muscular, and bearded Viking ready for battle. He is a regular man of medium-height, not particularly bulky. He is a farmer as most Viking Age Scandinavians were. But based on what we know about Viking Age society, he was a farmer ready to use violence when necessary.

Further in, I came upon interactive screens where I could push buttons and have the screen come alive with information about the different roles men and women had in Viking Age society. Screens of this kind occurred throughout the exhibit, providing extra information in addition to the physical exhibit. There was also a corner for children to touch and play with replicas of Viking Age objects. Norse religion was represented through the stunning art work of Johan Egerkrans.

The exhibit ended in a short corridor decorated with head shots of the characters in History’s TV-show Vikings. I found the inclusion of these photos puzzling. Does this mean that The Viking Museum endorses the show, which is known to take liberties with the Viking Age source material? Or is it meant as a transition to the downstairs portion of the museum where visitors are taken on the adventure ride Ragnfrid’s Saga about the life and adventures of a fictional Viking Age family?

My final stop before I left was the gift shop, which I found to be chock-full of interesting stuff. I ended up buying quite a few things, among them Anna Lihammer and Ted Hesselbom’s book on the connection between the creation of the Viking Age and Swedish nineteenth-century masculinity ideals, which at the time of my visit was hot off the presses of the publisher Historiska Media.

My visit to The Viking Museum proved to be a much more positive experience than I had anticipated. Similar to the Museum of Wrecks, The Viking Museum pushes the boundaries of what a museum can be. Neither museum is focused on actual artifacts; instead, focus lies on epistemology, that is to say, what we know and how we know what we know. To present the Viking Age in all its complexities, I believe this is a productive route to take. Scandinavia during what now is called the Viking Age was a civilization that needs to be taken in as a whole, not in parts. That is to say, if you only focus on the medieval texts about the Viking Age or if you only focus on excavated artifacts, you will only see a fraction of what the Viking Age was about.

The goal of The Viking Museum is to bring state-of-the-art research about the Viking Age to the masses, and the museum does so successfully. Much of the research on the Viking Age available in English lags behind what is happening among experts and scholars in Scandinavia because of the language barrier between Scandinavian scholars and publications in English. Here, The Viking Museum communicates recent interdisciplinary findings directly to the international public.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Catch me on the Media-Eval Podcast.

Source: Media-eval.

During the last week of August, I had the great pleasure of speaking to fellow medievalist Sarah Ifft Decker, host and show runner of the podcast Media-eval. Media-eval is a podcast about the Middle Ages in popular culture, but our conversation took a slightly different path.

Instead of talking about a movie or a TV show, we talked about what it is like to be a public medievalist while also being a working medievalist in academia. What are the challenges of straddling these sometimes diametrically opposed worlds? What are the benefits? How do we develop our voices in the public square while at the same time staying true to our ideals as scholars?

Click here to listen to our conversation on Soundcloud. You will also find Media-eval wherever you get your podcasts.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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The Museum without Objects. A Visit to Sweden’s Museum of Wrecks.

The Entrance of Vrak, Museum of Wrecks, Stockholm, Sweden.
Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

As the heat and humidity of the South Florida summer continues, I have found myself thinking about the trip I took to Sweden last December. Blue skies, midwinter sunshine, snow, and cool air just above or just below freezing. I spent one of those lovely winter days visiting the Museum of Wrecks, a flagship museum recently added to the roster of tourist destinations in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm.

Museum of Wrecks is a museum dedicated to shipwrecks. The sea floor of the Baltic Sea, on whose shores Stockholm is located, and along which Sweden has its longest coastline, is littered with shipwrecks from all time periods, from the Stone Age until today. There are several reasons for that.

First, the Baltic Sea has been the main route for long-distance communications for thousands of years. The cargo ships and passenger ferries that criss-cross this sea today are the modern day bearers of a legacy that involves Stone Age settlers, Vikings, pirates, naval fleets, and trade ships. That many ships over that long period of time produce a lot of shipwrecks.

Second, the Baltic Sea is low on oxygen with limited water exchange. The only connection the Baltic Sea has to another large body of water, in this case the North Sea, is through the narrow straights of Øresund, Kattegatt, and Skagerrak, located between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. These conditions prevent organic matter from deteriorating in the Baltic Sea. The result of the slow deterioration of organic matter is that shipwrecks are better preserved here than in other seas. Why? Because up until the late nineteenth century when steam engines replaced sail, ships were built from wood.

Map of Øresund, Kattegatt, and Skagerrak.
Source: Wikipedia/Public domain.

Third, the water in the Baltic Sea is brackish, not salt. Because of the limited water exchange through Øresund and the number of freshwater rivers flowing into the Baltic Sea from Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Baltic States, Poland, and Germany, the freshwater and salt water mix in the Baltic Sea makes the sea brackish. The brackish water prevents the naval ship worm (Teredo navalis) from thriving. The naval ship worm is not a worm, and it has nothing to do with ships per se. The naval ship worm is a salt-water clam that feeds on the cellulose found in wood submerged in water. It is called a worm because the traces the clam leaves behind in the wood look like worm tracks. The naval ship worm needs the saline level of the water in which it lives to be above a certain level. Because the Baltic Sea is brackish, the saline level is too low, and the naval ship worm has not been able to establish itself there. The result is that all those wooden shipwrecks littering the floor of the Baltic Sea are left unharmed.

Museum of Wrecks created quite a buzz when it first opened in September 2021. Not only is it the first museum dedicated entirely to shipwrecks, most astonishing of all is that there are no objects on display. Instead, Museum of Wrecks takes a deep dive into the possibilities provided by 3D, holograms, and surround sound and visual entertainment.

Museum of Wrecks created quite a buzz when it first opened in September 2021. Not only is it the first museum dedicated entirely to shipwrecks, most astonishing of all is that there are no objects on display. Instead, Museum of Wrecks takes a deep dive into the possibilities provided by 3D, holograms, and surround sound and visual entertainment.

When you arrive at the Museum of Wrecks it looks like any other museum. There is a shop, a café, and a counter where you buy your ticket. When you enter the exhibits, you arrive in a room with benches where you watch a movie about the Baltic Sea. Unlike most other museum movies, you are surrounded by images and sound that place you underneath the surface of the sea. Divers, marine animals, flotsam and jetsam surround you as you look up towards the ceiling.

The next stop is the permanent exhibit about the warship Resande Man, which sank in November 1660 on a diplomatic mission to Poland. Again, the exhibit takes place on the bottom of the sea. An entire wall of the room is an image of the sea floor. But what is most striking is that when you first enter the room, the room looks empty. All you see are transparent boxes with nothing in them. As you approach them, images appear. The images are holograms that consist of 3D scans of artifacts from Resande Man followed by short vignettes that locate the artifacts where they are found on the sea floor inside the wreck.

Video of hologram at the exhibit of Resande Man, Museum of Wrecks, Stockholm, Sweden.
Filmed by Erika Harlitz-Kern

The next part of the museum is an exhibit of six different shipwrecks from different time periods that demonstrate the interconnectedness of the Baltic Sea across the centuries up until the most recent disaster involving the passenger ferry M/S Estonia in 1994. The final part of the museum is about maritime archaeology where once again 3D holograms come to great use. I really appreciated the dedicating of an entire section of the museum to research. It is rare that museum visitors get to see the work behind the information presented in the exhibits.

Museum of Wrecks left me invigorated at the same time as it also left me unsatisfied. The use of 3D images, holograms, and immersive audiovisual experiences were all refreshing and, at least in my mind, points in the direction of a way forward for a sector that currently struggles with how to offer a new experience to jaded tourists, how to handle the issue of displaying objects whose provenance is in doubt, and how to deal with issues regarding storage and preservation. At the same time, Museum of Wrecks is small, its exhibits are narrow in scope, and while the room with Resande Man felt nearly empty, the rooms dedicated to maritime research are cramped and overladen with information and objects.

Still, if you are in Stockholm, I recommend a visit to the Museum of Wrecks. It will give you a new perspective on the Baltic Sea throughout history and what the museums of the future might look like.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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