Differences in approach between English and Classics

Today’s main task was to find out something about ‘tholos’ tombs, in particular the ones at Kamilari.

A search for the terms “tholos” in the University databases pointed me towards Mycenean tombs dating from the middle of the bronze age. My tombs are dated a few hundred years before that, and are on Crete, not the mainland. Searches for Kamilari turned up … nothing.  So, I went and had a chat to a lecturer, as you do. She pointed me directly to what turned out to be, after putting the bibliography through the library computers, the only book the library has on those tombs. Of course, being a lit major, research is less within the scope of my expertise than lying about research (we call it “independent thought” or “analysis”), so someone who knows what they’re doing may have more luck. Come to think of it, pretty much all the research I did for my Engineering degree focused more on processing information than on obtaining it.

Anyway, I have perused the larger part of Branigan’s The Tombs of Mesara and found that it had pretty much everything you want from an academic text:
– Full and cogent reasoning
– Lucid text
– Pretty pictures

It really is quite insightful and easy to follow… but it covers pretty much everything I had contemplated contemplating, including a rudimentary structural analysis of the tombs’ structure. So, I fear I will be reduced to regurgitating his main points and observations, without really being able to add much. But I suppose that this is largely the nature of archaeological inquiry at my level. What, seriously, could a neophyte like myself really add to the historical understanding of any artefact? None.

This made me ponder, again, the essential difference between this field and Literature. In Literature, they tend to set essay topics on obscure or difficult points which usually revolve around some point of minutiae. I might look back to the first essay for ENGL 247:Contemporary Fiction, with a question like: What kinds of “homes” are made in Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Most of the critical essays I own wouldn’t dream of restricting themselves to such a limited aspect of a work or an author. Picking an essay at random from The Secenteenth Centure Background by Basil Willey (itself selected at random from my shelf) we’d see topics like: Locke’s Theory of Knowledge. That’s an essay trying to get to grips with two very big things: a broad-based concept and the whole of an author’s work! There are more specialist essays published, for example, Walls’ ‘Adam-wits’ in Absalom and Achitophel. ‘adam-wits’ is an adjective used once in Dryden’s entire corpus. But, on the whole, they’re more concerned with the “big picture”, just as I am in my forthcoming essay. The specificity of these topics is driven, I think, by a sense that our contributions should by necessity be original. Since nobody is writing on such obscure topics, the opportunity for plagiarism is reduced.

It is ironic that in Literature, where academics seem generally concerned with the generalities, we are set topics of great specificity, but in Archaeology, which is entirely consumed by details, the big picture is the fashion. (You might now ask yourself how this meshes with yesterday’s post about new criticism. I could answer you, dear readers, but space and time forbid.)

But, to the matter at hand! What have I learned (in 5000 words or less) about the Kamilari ‘tholos’ tombs?

Firstly, that they are centred around the Mesara plain in southern Crete, vaguely near the middle. (Those of you, like me, who have Google Earth, can now go look at pretty pictures of said plain. Isn’t technology marvellous? though I haven’t been quite able to locate either Kamilari or nearby Phaistos in Google Earth. They don’t seem to have labelled all foreign towns and villages, so I’m trying to scale from some hand-drawn maps from the 1960s.) ‘tholos’ tombs are circular tombs, with walls about 1m thick. There is a lot of disput about the kind of roof they had, but it is generally thought to be a timber roof above corbelled walls. They were in use for about 1500 years all told, and as you can imagine, quite a few people were buried in them over that huge time span. So, periodically they’d have to sweep out all the old corpses (relieving them of any burdensome valuables) and chuck them in ossuaries nearby. They went out of fashion on Crete somewhere near MMIII (about 1600 BC), at about the time that the Mycenaeans were just getting the hang of them.

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12 Responses to Differences in approach between English and Classics

  1. nishatalitha says:

    A 1500 word essay in a paragraph. I’m impressed.

  2. house_monkey says:

    Just toprove I do read your long posts, even if I don’t always understand them (which is kind of the point really), the correct spelling is minutiae.

  3. OK, the kinds of literature essays that make it in to books tend to be reasonably generalised, because they’ve been written by someone who has presumably acquired a mastery of the subject and is giving other people a broad spectrum introduction. On the other hand, literary journals tend to publish articles on some very abstruse details. Like, the use of the “Balder the Beautiful” myth in the Narnia books. Not the Solar Myth in general (that’s a book by Chad Walsh), just the specific Norse instance. Or Kathryn Walls theory about those two Jewish women drawing water (or whatever it is). It was fully explained in her article, but the standard text on Spenser reduces it to a footnote and a reference.

    • mashugenah says:

      There’s also the factor of “will this be interesting to anyone else ever?” Some of those articles are just so pointlessly specific that promulgating them isn’t worthwhile. I’m not disputing that these articles are out there, just that they are the majority.

      I’m not really comfortable with “is giving other people a broad spectrum introduction” because I own some relatively specifically targetted literary criticism. Books targetted not at a “general audience” but the serious student or fellow academic. They are written in a voice which assumes not only consumate familiarity with the specific work being discussed, but of other critical essays on that work.

  4. adrexia says:

    The significance of the tholos tombs is what interests me. Also, the reasons why they ‘went out of fashion’, and what replaced them.

    I love the bronze age. I don’t love bronze age historians though. I remember being rather frustrated by them a few years ago. Argumentitive bunch that they are.

  5. At the undergrad level in Classics, you’re generally getting the big picture so you can engage with the material properly later.

    You may be able to find journal articles on your topic too. They should be referenced in Branigan and they can be relatively quickly interloaned if necessary.

  6. eloieli says:

    You wrote:

    Of course, being a lit major, research is less within the scope of my expertise than lying about research (we call it “independant thought” or “analysis”), so someone who knows what they’re doing may have more luck. Come to think of it, pretty much all the research I did for my Engineering degree focused more on processing information than on obtaining it.

    This is entirely how I aced my Philosophy (read one article and say something interesting about it) and struggled with my Psychology degree (where I was told a bibliography with three articles was too short, heck I was told a bibliography with 12 articles was too short, mind you, that was my honours disseration).

    I think there are several approaches to knowledge. The popular one at university seems to be to encourage people to read as widely as possible and then say what they have read, perhaps adding a few comments on what they thought about what they read. A qualatative approach.

    I (and perhaps you Mash) take more quantitative approach. I will read a few things and think deeply about them and then argue at length with regard to what they say. Typically in my undergrad philsophy I’d read the extreme points of view from both sides of the debate and then set about picking them both apart and suggesting a more compromising approach. This did me pretty well.

    When I tried to do it in Psychology honours, Wendy Parr (now a Vintner I believe) told me to stop doing philsophy and start doing psychology. I should have taken this as a warnign andf quit doing Psychology and started doing philosophy 😉

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