Is new scholarship always better?

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Some old books on Greek archaeology

This is something I’ve been asking myself for a few weeks now, ever since I read something someone I am following on Twitter – a university lecturer – had posted about the instructions they give their students concerning searching for reading for assignments: is new scholarship always (to be fair to the tweeter I should probably say ‘usually’ but that would make a less punchy title) better than old?

I’ve lost the original tweet so I am paraphrasing but it was something along the lines of: students are allowed to use only one title from before I (the lecturer) was born, one from between the year I was born and the year they were born and everything else must have been published more recently. The idea, of course, is to encourage students not to dredge up old work that has now become redundant. That certainly sounds like a good thing and, sure enough, the post had received lots of approving replies, retweets and “likes”.

In my own work, however, I’ve often felt that the very opposite problem exists – that we are far too often inclined to assume that the most recent opinion on any given subject must be the best and that anything written decades ago might as well be left on the shelf to gather dust. Or worse. I recently saw another tweet in which an archaeologist was defending his decision not to take the repeated advice of his colleagues and throw out all his old theory books.

In my own research I’ve encountered countless instances where negative assumptions about old research were definitely misplaced but let me give a concrete example:

My PhD was about changes in the uses of Greek agoras (public squares) in Hellenistic and Roman times – roughly the 500 years or so after the heyday of Greek culture in the Classical period. A lot of the literature I read was about how the buildings that have been excavated on the agoras of various cities had been interpreted. Because the evidence is often so patchy questions of interpretation are often highly contentious: was building X a theatre or a council house? was such and such a temple dedicated to Apollo or Poseidon? And so on…….

Often the debate revolves around trying to match references to particular buildings in surviving literary sources or inscriptions to the remains unearthed by archaeologists. This is especially true for the city of Athens where a relative abundance of literary sources survive even if for the post-Classical periods this evidence is still in truth rather limited. Athenian topography – working out how the city fitted together and where different monuments were to be found – has produced so much scholarship it might almost be thought of as a subdiscipline of Classical studies. It’s certainly an issue that plenty of people have any opinion on.

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An excellent reconstruction of the mid 2nd Century BC “South Square” from the north, facing southeast – by www.ancientathens3d.com

A particular controversy relating to my own work is the interpretation of the so-called South Square on the Agora. Around the middle of the 2nd Century BC a large stoa that lined the south of the square since the late 5th century BC (called South Stoa I because we don’t know its ancient name) was demolished and replaced with an (almost – see the picture) enclosed square created by the new South Stoa II, the East Building and the Middle Stoa (the names again are an indication of how uncertain we are about many public buildings even for one of the most well-known ancient Greek cities).

Since it was excavated in the first half of the twentieth century various theories have been proposed as to what the function of the “South Square” might have been: a gymnasium (the 2nd century travel writer Pausanias mentions a gymnasium near the agora – might he have been talking about this complex?), a commercial marketplace (lots of cities by this time had two agoras, one for politics, one for commerce, was this an attempt to bring the centre of Athens up to date?) or an administrative complex housing, among other things, the city’s law courts (an older building on the north of the agora thought to have housed the courts was demolished around the same time the South Square was built and the way access to the complex was tightly controlled would have suited that function).

This is probably not an issue ever can be resolved conclusively. However recent opinion has tended toward the ‘commercial market’ interpretation. This is the view of the current director of the Agora excavations Professor John Camp. From my reading and from talking to other scholars this view now seems to have become something of a consensus. If anybody needs a citation to back it up they can always refer to Camp’s fairly recent and excellent book The Archaeology of Athens published in 2004. It would be easy to think that there’s little point in considering anything written about the subject before that time. However, although Professor Camp has put that opinion in print he’s never systematically set out a case for that interpretation of the square and neither has anybody else. So even if his interpretation is right there isn’t really much to explain why this interpretation has now become the preferred one except that it’s probably the most recent thing that most people have read on the subject or heard about from colleagues.

In my research I went back and read the various older theories that had been put proposed and decided on balance that I feel that the interpretation that the complex housed the law courts was the most convincing one. The case that had been set out by Richard Earnest Wycherley and Homer Thompson (a former director of the excavations) in a publication of 1972 consisted of an intricately detailed argument which I found consistent with the impression I’d gained from various other pieces of evidence that in the second century BC the main agora remained a heart of politics and administration while commerce, or at least trade in foodstuffs, was concentrated about 80m to the east where the so-called Roman Agora would later be built.

I don’t want to go into any more depth here but the point is that in this case far from being redundant I found this piece of scholarship, published near half a century ago to be extremely useful. Anybody wanting to decide on the function of the square now should at least take account of Thompson and Wycherley’s arguments and cannot afford to assume that they must have got things wrong just because somebody else has argued something different more recently.

So where does this idea that the most recent scholarship is the only thing worth reading come from? On the one hand I suspect it is an assumption that has filtered through to the humanities from the hard sciences where new discoveries really can make old knowledge redundant. At the same time it surely has to do with the exponential increase in the number of people working in the humanities. I’ve written elsewhere about the impossibility of staying-up-to date with everything published to do with the ancient world. With thousands of people publishing on relevant subjects we’re forced to take it on trust that the most recent research has got something right that older works got wrong.

At the same time it is probably also has to do with our modern culture’s impossible race to keep up with everything that’s new – whether it’s people constantly upgrading perfectly functioning smartphones, social media awash with uncontrolled excitement at the release of the latest Marvel superheroes film or those infuriating “best of the year” lists of films, books, TV-series that appear in the national newspapers every December. For the record I bought my first and only smartphone last year, haven’t yet made it past Iron Man 2 and feel woefully unqualified to say which books etc. of 2017 were best because at most I must have watched/read two or three that came out then. I console myself with the sneaking suspicion that the same is true for most of the people contributing to the lists.

But what’s wrong with thinking that the newest scholarship must be superior to the old? Well, for one thing, as my example was meant to illustrate, it means that valid and useful contributions to particularly thorny scholarly problems can end up unfairly brushed aside. For another it creates the very real risk that as each scholarly generation succeeds the next we are going to lose sight of where some of the ideas that we all take for granted originate. It is now all to easy – particularly with resources like Google Scholar permanently at our finger tips, particularly for students who’ve never known a world without superfast internet – to cite the very latest article on, for example, how hoplite warfare might have been laid the foundations for the development of Greek democracy without even asking who it was who first came up with the idea many decades ago. As generations of scholars pass if each one only cites the work of the preceding one there’s a very real danger of thinking that we’re continually reinventing the wheel actually all we’re really doing is just spinning it around.

I’m curious now how other people working in the humanities, whether in Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology or unrelated disciplines feel about this. The limited amount of evidence we have to work with in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology is both a curse and a blessing – on the negative side it means there are things about the ancient world we sadly will never know but on the positive side it also means we have the luxury of being able to debate and reconsider every piece of that evidence and every interpretation of it in minute detail. The tweet that sparked off my thoughts on all this was by a historian of the 19th C and I can well imagine that in that field literature may well age faster than it does in mine. I still wonder, however, whether even for more recent subjects it might not be just as big a problem that people are ignoring older literature than that they’re reading too much of it.

But whether you agree or disagree with me or are able to offer another perspective from a different field I would be really keen to hear how other people think about this. To return to the question “Is new scholarship always better?” I’d love to hear your answer…