Saturday, October 3, 2015

Berkeley's "Center for the Study of Ancient Italy" Off to an Inauspicious Start

It started with so much promise.  A new, interdisciplinary center at a stellar university, dedicated to studying all matters ancient Italian.

Many of us had hoped it would focus more on the more understudied but significant Italic tribes (Umbrians, Lucani, etc.), but that dream quickly dissipated.  The center will have a "special emphasis on the Etruscans and Romans."  (If that makes you wonder how this makes it different from most existing efforts, you are not alone.)

But it is not this emphasis that calls the Center's academic rigor into question.  It is instead its first major effort, the Center's involvement in a workshop on the "Material Connections" between the Etruscans and Anatolia.

It acts like noticing similarities (and cultural exchanges) between ancient Mediterranean civilizations is something new and groundbreaking.  Yawn.  It's not.

But that is not the topic of this screed. Instead it is something that is frankly really surprising and deeply disappointing: the Center's website makes several pseudo-scientific statements that should be an embarrassment to anyone with one undergraduate class under her belt on historical or scientific method.

We quote verbatim from the Center for the Study of Ancient Italy's website, with commentary in bold italics (no pun intended).

"Similarities in Etruscan and Anatolian material culture have long been noted, but disciplinary boundaries ... have prevented scholars from exploring their implications."

Really?  You've got to be kidding me.  Plenty of scholars and other individuals have "explored" the "implications" of similarities ad nauseam.  In fact, there appears sometimes to be a neverending quest to find such similarities, based on the prejudiced assumption that if a culture was advanced and Italian, it simply had to be exogenous.

Then, the website continues with the somewhat redundant but absolutely bizarre statement that archaeologists apparently haven't studied enough the possible Anatolian connections with the Etruscans, and then a non-sequitur that recent DNA studies have muddied things further.  (Actually, they haven't, but we won't go into that here).

Then the two whoppers of all whoppers:

"This workshop will bring together international scholars for the very first time to explore the striking similarities between Anatolian and Etruscan material culture, without an agenda of proving or disproving Herodotus, [i.e., the ancient writer who claimed the Etruscans originated in Anatolia]."

1.  Really?  Is this really the "very first time" that any scholars have gotten together to talk about the alleged similarities between Etruscans and certain ancient Anatolian cultures? 

This is hype that is completely inappropriate for a scholarly web page.  

You want to bring together scholars for something totally new?  Put on a symposium about Dionysius of Helicarnassus, who unlike Herodotus had met an Etruscan, and lived among them for 20 years, and likely spoke their language, and had access to their histories now lost -- and who stated unequivocally that they were autochthonous.  Prove or disprove him.

2.  And the second part of that clause ("without an agenda or proving or disproving Herodotus") is criminal from the standpoint of historical or scientific method.  

You have a statement that this workshop will explore the "striking similarities between the two cultures" but that it won't be taking a side.

Come again?  

The conclusion has been stated before the study.  

The outcome has been determined before the workshop.  

Put in layman's terms, there is none of the "if" here, that marks scholarly hypothesis, with a hope for rigorous testing.  The bias is apparent from the statement.  "There are these massive similarities, but we're not taking a side."  LOL.

To add to the ridiculousness of this webpage, which really must be viewed in its entirety to be appreciated, it shows a painting by an Etruscan male holding up his right hand, and (gasp!) a painting of an Anatolian male holding up his right hand. 

If this Center wants to be taken seriously, here are some suggestions for topics:

1.  The similarities with Etruscan culture and Egyptian culture.  The tombs, the attitudes towards afterlife, certain gods and goddesses, certain foods and drinks consumed, certain pottery styles, the fact that the longest Etruscan text discovered was on an Egyptian mummy;


2.  The similarities with Etruscan culture with Campanian (native South Italic) culture.  Certain pottery styles, certain gods and goddesses, certain terms for officials, etc.


3.  The similarities with Etruscan culture with Greek culture.


4.  The similarities with Etruscan culture with Tartessian (ancient south of Spain) culture . . . Phoenician (ancient Lebanon) culture . . . Nuragic (ancient Sardinian) culture... on and on.

And then the question to pose:  Why is it that despite these other similarities, which in certain areas are "striking" do scholars continue to focus to the point of obsession on the alleged Anatolian similarities?  

Why, despite tremendous similarities between the Etruscans with Faliscans (Central Italy), Campanians (South Italy), Egyptians, Greeks, etc. -- why is it that no one tries to connect Etruscans to them?  It really is all Herodotus.  And the wacky "proof" to connect the Etruscans to Anatolians is the very same "evidence" that exists linking them to these other ancient cultures!

In other words, everyone knows the Mediterranean was the "superhighway" of the Ancient World, and that the traders, pirates, and warships traversed and interacted to a much higher degree than we moderns typically assume.  

So why do we continue to attach significance that the highly civilized Etruscans, the pirates and merchants of their time, borrowed culture from Anatolia?  

Why the focus on Anatolia, if it isn't to prove Herodotus?

Now THAT is a workshop I would love to see.

The other day as I enjoyed a Sapporo, watched my Sams-sung TV, and gazed at my replica Terracotta Army figures on my lawn, I wondered if some future Berkeley interdisciplinary student would assume I am of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese heritage.  (I'm an Irish-American, living in the Bay Area, which happens to trade a lot with Asia over the Pacific Ocean).

Sometimes the questions asked reveal a bias.

Sometimes the bias is so overwhelming that it overcomes all science.

Sometimes the premise is the conclusion.

Berkeley's "Center for the Study of Ancient Italy" has disappointed here.


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