Shanks thus exposes connoisseurship as, essentially, a great deal of smoke and mirrors: “the concepts of style and artists, at the root of such practices, can be criticised as idealist” (p. 36). Indeed, Shanks’s conclusion to his discussion of Beazley is damning: “Beazley’s catalogues are not to be read; they are boring, and, at the same time, fascinating monuments to a legend” (p. 41). Harsh, but true.
In chapter 3, Shanks expands on the pots. While Beazley and others considered fine pottery to be works of art (a result of the efforts of collectors and explorers from the eighteenth century onwards), Vickers and Gill have shown that they were perhaps just poor imitations of gold and silver vessels that were beyond the reach of most people.
Shanks’s approach to ancient Greece, and the study of ancient Greece, is perhaps best summarized on page 118, in the conclusion to his fourth chapter:
The Classical past does not reveal itself in its essential character but has to be worked for. This leads to the question: what sort of Classical past do we want? One that is consoling, nostalgic, bolstering up notions of cultural excellence? Or different Classical pasts which question and edify? Classical archaeologists need to take responsibility for their choices and not hide behind notions of the past the way it was and is for all time.
Shanks demands that archaeologists – but really anyone who studies the past – make clear why they offer a particular construction of the past. Unfortunately, few writers actually make this explicit, claiming instead, as Shanks makes clear, that they merely “uncover” the past. But that is incorrect. We all bring our own preconceived notions into play when we look at and seek to interpret the remains of the past.
So, here’s my task for you, if you want to accept it.
Next time you read something about the ancient world, try to imagine – since it probably won’t have been made explicit – what reasons the author may have had to write about that subject in that particular way. In other words, try to critically examine the text that you are presented with and compare it with what you already know about the subject and what others have written about it.
Only in this way can you hone your mind and discover, along the way, what kind of past you want for yourself. And that may reveal something about yourself, too.