Sunday, November 20, 2016

Am I the most literary archaeologist of all time?

How many archaeologists can say that they have participated in a joint project with the likes of Gore Vidal, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Barbara Kingsolver, and Charles Frazier? The list also includes Annie Dillard, Larrie McMurtry, and Jane Smiley. Well, I have published an essay in a volume together with these and other literary (and historical) luminaries. I guess that makes me a very literary archaeologist! What was I doing together with all these famous novelists? Unfortunately, it was not hobnobbing with them  at a literary cocktail party in Manhattan (nor at a Gatsby party on Long Island, for that matter).

I was invited to contribute an essay to a book edited by historian Mark C. Carnes called Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront Amerca's Past (and Each Other). Carnes had a bunch of historians write essays about specific historical novels, and then had the novelists write replies. The idea was to stimulate thought and discussion about history, fiction, and the past, but without slipping into nit-picky historical details. My contribution was the exotic case in the volume: Gary Jennings sprawling novel of Aztec adventure, sex, and violence, titled simply Aztec.

When Carnes first asked me to do this, I told him I needed to read the book first! I had started the novel as a graduate student, but had to put it down to avoid confusion. Jennings had immersed himself in the primary sources on Aztec society and history, and he really knew the details. Then, as a novelist, he elaborated where necessary. I found myself getting confused. Where did I read about people avoiding priests because they were worried they might be picked to be sacrificed? Was that in Sahagun, or was it an invention of Gary Jennings? So I dropped the novel, until Mark Carnes's request led me to pick it up again.

I loved the book. It was mostly accurate and full of adventure. The main character was a merchant who could travel in both elite and commoner social contexts. Jennings created practices that were contrary to fact only in key situations necessary for the novel. Thus he portrayed the Aztec writing system as more complete than it actually was, so that he could have people writing messages to one another, a practice that advanced the story in key places. Of course Jennings got a number of picky minor things wrong. But on the other hand, he actually predicted a finding that archaeologists had not yet dared to formulate until well after the novel was published!

Jennings has a merchant carrying obsidian and other goods back and forth across the fortified boundary that separated the Aztec and Tarascan empires. The written sources on the Aztecs, however, claim that this was an impenetrable border that nothing crossed. Aztec archaeologists, being traditionally under the spell of the written record (don't get me started....), had not even considered the possibility of Aztec-Tarascan trade. But if you think about it for more than a couple of seconds, it it clear that one trait EVERY fortified and defended border has in common, is that people and goods move back and forth illegally (I could make a crack here about a proposed wall along the US-Mexican border...). So it was not hard for Jennings to have his characters involved in contraband and smuggling. But only after the novel was published did we get incontrovertible evidence of an active trade across the Aztec-Tarascan border. Obsidian sourcing studies now show a two-way exchange of obsidian across the border, and lead isotope studies of bronze artifacts I excavated, by Dorothy Hosler, show a west-to-east trade).

It was fun writing my essay, and I was looking forward to seeing Gary Jennings's reply. My main beef with him was that he did not include the typical section where he lists his main sources and perhaps thanks some experts. But this is a minor point. Unfortunately, Jennings died before he could reply to my essay. I was really bummed out! So Carnes published, instead, the reply he got to his initial invitation to Jennings to participate in the volume. It is sort of cranky, railing against academics in general who get picky about historical novels. "It may sound to you, Mark, as if I'm already compiling my indignant response to whatever historian may eventually do the critical review of Aztec." He counseled the editor to find "non-ivory-tower historians" for the books in the volume.

I would like to think I would be considered a non-ivory-tower historian (or archaeologist). This was one of my most enjoyable essays. And by keeping company (of sorts) with Gore Vidal, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the rest, I think I can be considered one of the most literary archaeologists of all time!

Carnes, Mark C. (editor)
2001    Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America'sPast (and Each Other). Simon and Schuster, New York.

Jennings, Gary
1980    Aztec. Avon Books, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2001    The Aztec World of Gary Jennings. In Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other), edited by Mark C. Carnes, pp. 95-105. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Problems with authors who publish books but not articles

Do you ever get annoyed when reading book-length studies and the author feels justified in ignoring the scholarly literature on the topic? I have found this to be the case with a number of authors. If they would publish in journals, they would be forced to cite other studies on the topic and contextualize their work within the scholarly literature. But because they are publishing a book (and the editors/press don't seem to care), they feel free to write what they like, and other studies of the topic be damned. I think this practice is harmful to scholarship.

Here is a portion of a book review I published a number of years ago. I've anonymized it, since my goal here is not to dump on Dr. X. But it does express my frustrations with this particular book, something I have seen in other book-authors who do not publish journal articles:

I am in agreement with X’s overall goals and approach. This type of revisionist history, in which political explanations are applied to phenomena previously interpreted in particularistic and ideological terms, is welcome. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with many of X’ specific arguments, largely because I am unable to assess their strengths and weaknesses. In part this is owing to his style of scholarship. X identifies an important and unresolved issue, summarizes what the primary historical sources say, discusses the pros and cons of alternative interpretations of the data, and then states his preference. His exposition sounds logical and convincing but because he does not cite the relevant secondary literature, one would never know that a given topic is the subject of considerable published scholarship and debate among specialists, many of whom draw on data and methods not presented by X.  Scholars Y and Z, for example, have made fundamental contributions to the topics covered by X, but he does not cite the relevant publications  This failure does not make X’s arguments wrong, but the reader is prevented from evaluating them within the context of contemporary scholarship.

 I am also disappointed by X’s treatment of archaeological data. He presents incorrect dates (which support his interpretations) for several key buildings, including the New Fire temple on Mount Huixachtecatl and the twin-temple pyramids of Tenayuca and Teopanzolco. Contrary to X’s assertions, these latter temples are dated quite firmly to the Early Aztec period (several centuries before the Aztec empire) and thus cannot possibly have had the imperial significance attributed to them by his model. X’s book is an intriguing study with a fresh theoretical approach and many promising interpretations of Aztec history, time and calendars. However, to be assessed properly, X’s interpretations must be debated within the community of scholars working on these issues so that the strength of his arguments can be evaluated. 

Give me a series of journal articles any day. Or, if you write a book, please be scholarly and complete about it, even if it is not subject to peer review.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Anonymity ain't what it used to be

(NOTE: I just found that this post was sitting around, not submitted. So here it is)

Sometimes scholarly anonymity is not upheld by journals, even if they promise this. A while ago I reviewed a manuscript for Journal A (I am being anonymous here to protect the guilty). The paper in question had a lot of problems and I did not recommend publication. Recently I saw that the paper (presumably a heavily revised version) had been published in Journal B. Then a colleague emailed me with some remarks on the paper, and made an offhand remark that I must have seen the paper and provided help or comments to the authors. But I don't know the authors and had never communicated with them! I checked the paper, and I was indeed thanked in the acknowledgements for my comments. I went back to my original review and confirmed that I had indeed submitted it anonymously (sometimes I sign my reviews, and sometimes not; when I DO sign a review, I make it very clear that I do not want to remain anonymous).

I contacted the editors of Journal A, who did not know what had happened. I contacted the lead author, who sent along a copy of my review. It was the review I had submitted to the journal, but an extra line had been added at the top: "Reviewer: Michael Smith." This was supposed to be a single-blind review system (that is, the names of the authors are known to the reviewers, but the names of the reviewers are not supposed to be revealed to the authors). Hmmmmmmmm. I was pretty angry at the journal, and slightly miffed at the authors. I think the authors should have contacted me, acknowledged that they saw my review, and ask if they minded if they cited me in the acknowledgements. That might have led to a more lengthy correspondence, and perhaps a more beneficial use of my advice to them. But this is a minor point. Another consideration is that the authors (presumably) used my review to improve the paper, so I am happy to have contributed in that sense.

I started off my career, back in pre-email days, writing reviews on university letterhead, a BIG mistake! One time a publisher asked me to review a couple of chapters from a new textbook (by a colleague I knew pretty well) and promised me anonymity. I thought the chapters left a lot to be desired and said so. The next time I talked to the author, they thanked me for my "frank" review. "How did you know it was me?" I asked. Well, it seems the publisher had covered up my signature but not the university letterhead! I was teaching at Loyola University of Chicago, and I was the only archaeologist on the faculty. It was pretty clear to the author that I must have written the review. That was when I switched to writing reviews on a separate sheet with no identifying marks. That seemed to work, until now.

So, what is the lesson here? Although I often feel that anonymity should be avoided in the interests of collegiality and collaboration, it does have its uses. If a journal claims to use blind peer reviewing, then they should adhere to their standards and not compromise them. And if you are writing a review and really want to remain anonymous, consider the reputation of the journal and its editor. You can always contact the editor to mention your concern about anonymity; that might reduce the chances of slippage as in my case today.

For more information about anonymity in peer review (in relation to double-blind reviewing), see my older post on this. Both of those older posts have some bibliographic citations on types of peer review and their implications.

From: PhD Comics

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Should you consider a 3-article dissertation?

The three-article format for dissertations is becoming more common in archaeology. In my proposal-writing class we cover some professional issues, and students were interested in discussing the 3-article dissertation. I am not an expert here, but I did supervise creation of a policy and guidelines for the three-article thesis in my unit, and I am sitting on committees where students have chosen this option. I found a nice blog post (from 2014) on The Thesis Whisperer, "Thesis by publications? You're joking, right?" (guest post by earth scientist David Alexander). The (many) comments on that post contain many good insights and ideas, and I'll quote a bunch of them below.

First, here is a brief summary of our requirements (in SHESC) for a three-article dissertation:
  • The dissertation will consists of an introductory chapter, three article-chapters, a conclusion, and a single bibliography.
  • The paper must be considered publishable by the committee. This includes evaluation of the appropriateness of the target journal.
  • If the student has gathered a significant amount of data that will not go into an article, then the data should be presented in an appendix to the dissertation 


  • Divides the thesis into manageable sections
  • Less of a big push at the end to get the thesis done
  • Professional critique and feedback at an early stage
  • Articles improve one’s CV, and gives you a head start on publishing from the thesis.

 Here are some positive quotes from the comments on the Thesis Whisperer blog post"

For mine, the greatest advantage is that I now don’t have to sit down and write publications associated with my thesis.
It would be fairly hard for examiners to say that your research is crap when it has already been peer reviewed. 
What this discussion raises for me, or reminds me of, is that too often PhD students spend so much time on this one research project that they end up having narrowed their vision of the field that they are in. In addition, their actual amount and breadth of experience with research methodology is quite brief, because the research methods utilised and analysis of data/results is limited in scope.   I would argue that a PhD by publication can not only be rigorous, due to the peer review process, whether internal or external, but it also likely demands that the student demonstrate a variety of research skills across a number of research studies.   The PhD by publication is much closer to the real life work of a career academic, where quantity of publications is a ‘fact of life.'


  • The format may not fit all dissertation topics
  • Can be looked down on by humanities-oriented scholars or disciplines
  • Can be looked down on by older, more traditional scholars
  • Can be a big delay if all of the articles must be PUBLISHED before the Ph.D. is granted.
  • The dissertation is less useful as a doorstop.

Here are some negative quotes from comments on the Thesis Whisperer post:"

I could imagine that a paper could possibly be produced from the lit review or maybe the discussion chapter from the end, but I can’t imagine how a chapter about theory, methodology or findings could function as a stand-alone paper??
I was strongly advised against it as the monograph plus 1 or 2 article is still the expected norm within English departments. I asked the same question, PhD by publication or PhD as monograph, at a conference a few months later where three scholars in my field (from UK, Australia and USA) gave a seminar for post grads on the job market, and was virtually scoffed at for even suggesting that a PhD by publication was a possibility in English.
I was incredibly surprised at the range of (often strongly voiced) opinions that academics and university administrators, as well as PhD students, have on the issue of PhD by publication. I’ve seen people having angry, loud arguments (particularly in the social sciences) about whether a PhD publication is a positive development for the academy.    I think the reason for the divergent opinions is that this issue goes to the very heart of what we think scholarship should be about. The monograph model suggests that good scholarship should be based on an ability to produce an in-depth, book length analysis of a given issue, whereas the publication model tends to correlate more closely to existing research evaluation frameworks, which value large numbers of papers more highly than other forms of research output (such as books).

So, here are some things to consider in making a decision about whether the three-article dissertation is right for you:

  • Check your university regulations. Some British institutions (based on the comments on the Thesis Whisperer post) require the three articles to be completely published before the thesis is accepted (obviously a potentially dangerous source of delay). Some institutions promote this form of dissertation, others try to restrict it. Check your options.
  • Is your archaeology more science- or humanities-oriented. The 3-article dissertation is definitely a development in the sciences, and it is more widely accepted in scientific disciplines. Humanities-oriented archaeologists, perhaps Classicists, who have spent their whole career on one type of building in one time period may be less likely to approve of the 3-article format. If you have such people on your committee, or if you intend to apply for jobs in programs consisting of such scholars, you may want to go with the traditional dissertation format.

Theses nailed to the wall in Uppsala
I wonder what they think about 3-article dissertations in Sweden, where they still nail their theses to the wall.

Monday, October 3, 2016

What books influenced my latest book?

When my book At Home with the Aztecs was published last spring, I had an invitation from an organization called "Connect-A-Book" to contribute to their website. The idea was for authors to list several books that were influential in the writing of their book. It sounded interesting, so I prepared some text. Then the company evidently bombed, and the website is gone (but the Twitter account still exists...). It was fun to identify the influences in my thinking, so I decided to put them here. Most of these show the development of my ideas on households and communities, with less attention to the Mesoamerican archaeological context that of course influences most of what I write about in the book.

First, the book blurb:

The lives of the Aztec people lay buried for five centuries until my excavations in Mexico brought them to light. My wife and I uncovered a remarkable series of prosperous communities composed of families with a high quality of life. At Home with the Aztecs tells three stories: (1) How archaeological fieldwork is conducted in Mexico; (2) What it was like raising our daughters on our digs; and, (3) How I pieced together the information from artifact fragments in ancient trash heaps to create a picture of successful ancient communities that have lessons for us today. In the process, I redefine success, prosperity and resilience in ancient societies, making this book suitable not only for those interested in the Aztecs but in the examination of resilient households and communities across space and time.

My influences:

Berdan, Frances F. and Patricia R. Anawalt (editors)  (1992)  The Codex Mendoza. 4 vols. University of California Press, Berkeley.

My quest to uncover the lives of Aztec commoners began with dissatisfaction with the written sources on the Aztecs. The Codex Mendoza, painted by an Aztec scribe shortly after the Spanish conquest, is one of the very few sources that actually shows commoners. The wedding scene on the cover of my book is from this source. While I got lots of ideas from the Codex Mendoza over the years, it also shows the limitations of the historical record of the Aztecs.

Flannery, Kent V. (editor)  (1976)  The Early Mesoamerican Village. Academic Press, New York.

As one of the founding texts of the “household archaeology” approach, this book first showed me the methods and concepts for using archaeology to uncover the lives and conditions of the common people of the distant past. I got excited when I read this as a new graduate student. But then I had to wait until I finished a boring Ph.D. dissertation before I could put the new ideas into practice. This classic work is a stand-in here for the many other articles and books on household archaeology that soon followed.

Netting, Robert McC.  (1993)  Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Understanding past households and communities requires more than excavations, houses, and artifacts. Ecological anthropologist Netting supplies the main conceptual foundation for interpreting Aztec households. These were not serfs or slaves, toiling away on the plantations of nobles. Instead, the residents of the houses I excavated were smallholder farmers who engaged in intensive agricultural practices. Netting’s model of smallholders fit my Aztec villages exactly, and I got lots of insights from this book, especially for my chapter 4 on the quality of life of Aztec households.

Ostrom, Elinor  (1990)  Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Nobel economics laureate (and former ASU colleague) Lin Ostrom showed how local villages can manage resources and survive as successful, resilient communities. This generalizes Netting’s household model to the community level, and it helped me see the connections between ancient Aztec communities and those of the modern world. Papers by Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis also helped me make this connection. These ideas helped me write chapter 7, on resilient Aztec communities.

Sampson, Robert J.  (2012)  Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Sampson’s study of Chicago neighborhoods reinforced the insights of Netting and Ostrom. Whether or not inner-city neighborhoods were communities in a social sense, Sampson’s approach to analyzing neighborhoods as important social units cemented my views that past and present societies can be compared. Rigorous methods and concepts can move social-science research forward, whether in today’s cities or yesterday’s cities and villages. This book helped convince me that human settlements share key processes across history and the globe. Thus my archaeological study of Aztec communities ties in with research on neighborhoods, communities, and cities today.

Check out the book's website: