Book cover for 'Traces of the Past'
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Traces of the Past

Classics Between History and Archaeology


What are we doing when we walk into an archaeological museum or onto an archaeological site? What do the objects and features we encounter in these unique places mean and, more specifically, how do they convey to us something about the beliefs and activities of formerly living humans? In short, how do visible remains and ruins in the present give meaning to the human past? Karen Bassi addresses these questions through detailed close readings of canonical works spanning the archaic to the classical periods of ancient Greek culture, showing how the past is constituted in descriptions of what narrators and characters see in their present context. She introduces the term protoarchaeological to refer to narratives that navigate the gap between linguistic representation and empirical observation—between words and things—in accessing and giving meaning to the past. Such narratives invite readers to view the past as a receding visual field and, in the process, to cross the disciplinary boundaries that divide literature, history, and archaeology.

Aimed at classicists, literary scholars, ancient historians, cultural historians, and archaeological theorists, the book combines three areas of research: time as a feature of narrative structure in literary theory; the concept of “the past itself” in the philosophy of history; and the ontological status of material objects in archaeological theory. Each of five central chapters explores how specific protoarchaeological narratives—from the fate of Zeus’ stone in Hesiod’s Theogony to the contest between words and objects in Aristophanes’ Frogs—both expose and attempt to bridge this gap. Throughout, the book serves as a response to Herodotus’ task in writing the Histories, namely, to ensure that “the past deeds of men do not fade with time.” 

Karen Bassi is Professor of Literature and Classics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Praise / Awards

  • "This is a theoretically sophisticated book, but it is not too impenetrable to be of relevance to the student."
    --Classics for All
  • "This is an ambitious, lucid, difficult, original, and complicated book ... [The Epilogue] deserves a place
    on every archaeological theory reading list."
  • "A highly sophisticated attempt to mediate between different approaches in the Theory of History...By showing how ancient texts refract the interplay between material presence and narrative representation in the production of the past, Bassi unlocks their reflexive potential and opens it up to a crucial question in the Theory of History."
    --American Journal of Philology
  • "Meticulously researched, intelligent, lucid, and well written, this book is of relevance to more than practitioners of classical archaeology.."
    --Cambridge Archaeological Journal
  • "This interesting book opens up ways of approaching intertextual objects and the creation of the Past."
    --Journal of Hellenic Studies
  • "This book, served by beautiful writing, opens stimulating perspectives by combining three lines of research: the time as a characteristic of the narrative structure, the concept of the past itself and the ontological status of material culture. It is a fertile reflection that will not fail to feed the spirits."
    --l'Antiquité Classique

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Product Details

  • 256 pages.
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  • Ebook
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-12196-0

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  • Classics, Greek literature, Greek historiography, material culture, visual culture, philosophy of history, narrative theory, archaeological theory, the past, visuality, proto-archaeological.