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Academic Organizations and the Web: 10 Suggestions

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

This past week, I offered to prepare a short advisory document to an academic organization that was planning to increase its web presence.  I think that academic organizations do well to model their sites and the people who are asked to maintain them along the lines of established academic institutions and develop “officers”, missions statements, and policies.  I think that we should also follow the basic academic method of being collaborative and deliberate, results will be better as well.  Even a single author blog is in some way collaborative as it relies on colleagues and collaborators to link to or to twitter posts.  Being deliberate is deeply ingrained in the most conservative traditions of academic life.

With some slight modifications to protect the innocent, here it is:

1. Audience. The most important thing about any website it to have a clear idea of an audience.  For example, my Archaeological of the Mediterranean World site appeals generally to academics interested in Mediterranean archaeology, ancient and Byzantine history, and technology. So while most of the content (see below) on my site counts as a kind of “mindcasting”, I do try to mindcast on things of interest to a notional audience.

2.Content is King”. For a website to “work” people have to work it into their everyday life. To do this, the site needs to be updated regularly (at least weekly)  with new content so people want to come back and check it out. The best way to keep a site updated regularly is to develop a group of dedicated contributors.  The era of the static website full of “resources” is over.

3. Contributors. If the website is going to thrive it has to have some regularly updated content. This does not have to be daily, but it needs in some way to be regular. To maintain a regular flow of content, you need to have multiple contributors.  A good editor can drum up contributors and provide content when needed, but it is essential to have a core group of people willing to work to produce significant web content.  (I think that there is a small, but rather a committed community already producing good quality content for the web, and we should be able to leverage this community).  My general feeling is that no section of the website will remain up-to-date and interesting without at least a few contributors.  Moreover, having a few contributors will prevent a section of the site from becoming a single editors soapbox.

4. An Editor.  The best websites have an editor or a group of designated editors who are responsible for content in particular areas of the site. The editors responsibilities might include soliciting new content, maintaining basic information on their section of the site, and establishing policies.  Also naming some an “editor” confers a certain amount of academic and intellectual prestige to these positions (and makes it easier for a mid-career faculty member to claim this work as  part of “national service” or whatever.).   We might also consider bringing in, say, one or two other editors (a “Blog Editor,” perhaps, or even a “Features Editor”).  The advantage of giving these individuals real editorial control over their sections is that they can be gatekeepers for the content coming onto the web, ensure its quality, maintain the content, publicize the content, et c.  Moreover, multiple contributors are also more likely to invoke some positive discussion.

5. Mission statement.  Since this will be something of an official site, we should probably come up with some kind of simple, broad mission statement that will help us create policies for the kind of material that we include on our site. For example, do we intend the site to be a scholarly resource or do we want to try to cater to a academic interests?  Or do we want to do both. In any event, a mission statement will help us think about our audience and the types of things that we value.

6. Policies. I know that this will seem overwrought, but as someone with a public web presence, I have been overwhelmed by a range of strange propositions that I get to feature material on my little blog.  Having a policy of what kinds of material you will or won’t allow will make the editors’ jobs much easier.  For example, will you let people post advertisements for their book on the site?  Will we let people submit job ads?  Will we advertise summer programs?  You can imagine.

7. Design. The nicest website sites have some common design elements.  If the plan is to use an institutional server (rather than a commercial service) to host the site as the central hub for a web site that would then would push traffic to various externally hosted pages, then it would be great to have some kind of common design for these external pages (and include cues on the Princeton page).

8. Software. Blogs are great.  This is not just because I am a blogger, but the ease of updating a blog makes them great for regularly updated content.  Moreover, many of the good blog services (e.g. wordpress.com hosts WordPress software on their servers) or software (e.g. WordPress is free to download and relatively easy to set up on an institution’s servers) allow you to create static pages as well as blog pages.  They are also equipped with an RSS feed et c. making them really easy to update and edit by people with almost no technical knowledge.

9. Social Media. If we are serious about developing a web presence for our organization we need to consider having an integrated social media component.  Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook work well to connect potential readers to the web site and serve as a key method for pushing content to a wider audience. In general, social media services are fairly easy to maintain and manage.  That being said, like the website itself, content drives traffic.  If we don’t maintain social media, then we won’t reap its benefits.

10. Take our time. One thing I’ve seen other places do is to rush out a web presence before they have developed content, policies, or even a kind of editorial or institutional support. The results have been pretty dodgy and have not held up well.  Taking time to develop how a website will work and who will be responsible for what parts of the site will produce the best quality results.

Categories: Byzantium, Web/Tech

More Byzantine Archaeology: Byzantine Trade

December 1, 2010 Leave a comment

As the end of the semester approaches, I forced myself to find time to peruse the new (2009) volume entitled Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th centuries edited by M. Mundell Mango.  It is a pretty neat and diverse collection of papers that touch on trade from the beginning of Late Antiquity to 4th Crusade.  The papers range from discussions of amphoras, shipwrecks, and pottery to studies on the location and organization of manufacturing.  I’ll admit upfront that I did not read all the papers in the volume so I hardly feel qualified to give a comprehensive review, but the articles that I did read were good.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the volume is the editors effort to locate the papers in relation to other recent scholarly works on trade and the economy in the Late Antique and Byzantine Mediterranean.  She takes particular aim at the recent A. Laiou edited Economic History of Byzantium which Mundell Mango points out continued problematic periodization schemes by beginning its analysis at the 7th century and thereby “failing to analyze at the same level the preceding period of formation that links Byzantium to the ancient world.” (4).

More importantly, perhaps, she noted that this volume sought to separate trade from discussions of the economy.  When I first read this, it blew my mind, but as I thought more carefully about it, I began to understand her point.  On some level, our theorizing about the ancient economy has dictated the kinds of questions that we have asked from our material and the kinds of analyses that we have conducted.  For example, most rural survey projects take as a point of departure M. Finley’s ideas of the relationship between the (consumer) city and the (producer) countryside.  Our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria, for example, is explicitly informed by the ideas advanced in Horden and Purcell’s Corrupting Sea and their idea that the ancient Mediterranean economy was dominated by semi-autonomous micro-regions. By separating trade from larger economic theorizing, there is a chance that we can produce a far less structured body of data that has the potential to reveal new patterns or organization that do more than challenge or confirm the growing body of economic theorizing.  In fact, Sean Kingsley’s unstructured datasets (that is to say, a data set made of individual records without any methodological relationship to one another) of Late Antique and Byzantine shipwrecks could present just the kind of evidence necessary to create new models of how trade actually occurred in the ancient and Medieval Mediterranean (31-36).  Of course, this kind of optimistic empiricism is difficult to come by in practice (and even more difficult to fund!), although one can imagine a time soon when the results of the various survey projects in the Eastern Mediterranean could offer a similar kind of unstructured data for analysis. It is interesting to observe, however, that most of the papers in this volume fall quickly back on longstanding

P. Armstrong’s article, “Trade in the east Mediterranean in the 8th century”, for example, continues the work of pushing the date of Cypriot Red Slip pottery later demonstrating that trade in this common Eastern Mediterranean table ware continued into the 8th century (157-178).  (Moreover, she reminds us that despite its name, CRS (or perhaps better Late Roman D Ware) may not all originate on the island of Cyprus!).  Armstrong’s article complements a shorter piece by I. Dimopoulos which looks at the trade in Byzantine red wares in the 11th and 13th century.  Both of these articles provide (as well as O. Karagiorgou’s  short offering on “Mapping trade by the amphora” (37-58)) continue the discussion of the relationship between the Late Roman and Byzantine economy on archaeological grounds. To my mind, these discussions are rooted in certain basic expectations regarding the economy, specifically, the notion that the Late Roman economy faltered over the course of the 7th-9th century. This basic assumption suggests that the economy is tied to administrative structures and practices like the annona trade and the political control of the Mediterranean basin.  Demonstrating the certain kinds of trade continued even as the political power of the Roman state abated does little to separate the idea of trade from larger questions of economic integration or administrative and political control.

I was drawn to this book while thinking about my own venture into the study of Byzantine archaeology and it struck me that the approach advocated here is explicitly anti-theoretical (if one understands the economy as a more intensively theorized version of the practice of trade).  The results are interesting and useful, but it barely scratches the surface of what Byzantine archaeologists are currently doing in the field.

Categories: Archaeology, Byzantium

Archaeology and Byzantium

November 22, 2010 Leave a comment

This weekend I spent a little time with the Liz James edited A Companion to Byzantium. (Blackwell 2010).  The scope of the book and the quality of articles (and contributors) is pretty impressive.  The focus on the range of Byzantine literature is both gratifying since so much of the discussion of Byzantine literature has tended to occur in languages other than English and timely since there seems to be growing interest in Byzantine texts other than hagiography.  The bibliography runs to over 70 pages and this alone warrants the perusing of this volume.

The section on Byzantine archaeology, however, is disappointing.  First, it is less than 10 pages and one page is half-blank and other other features a photograph of a conserved amphora. So, in all Byzantine archaeology received 8 pages of text in a 400+ page volume. The discussion focuses briefly on villages, towns, fortifications, and churches with short discussions of nationalism and a superficial presentation of different “archaeological approaches.”  For their length, the sections are decent, but the decisions to focus on this little handful of areas is difficult to understand.  For example, the chapter left out any sustained discussion of ceramic typologies and chronologies (a favorite of many of Byzantine archaeologist colleagues), scientific approaches (e.g. dendrochronology, physical anthropology, et c.) which have made such a significant impact on the field, intensive pedestrian survey on the regional level (which in Greece has begun to produce significant changes in how we understand Byzantine settlement), the archaeology of ethnicity (which is obviously central to discussions of ethnic change, modern nation building, and historical perceptions of Byzantium in the West), and the relationship of Byzantine archaeology to careful work on the Medieval, typically Crusader, eastern Mediterranean.  Some of these oversights can be attributed to the “late” date for the start of Byzantium; the author chose to begin the Byzantine period in archaeology in the second half of the 6th century.  While this dating falls within the conventional periodization for the start of the Byzantine period, it is not explained in terms of archaeological evidence.  In fact, it is increasingly clear that many of the trends that characterize Byzantine material culture (for example, ceramic types, construction styles, and settlement) tend in many parts of the Eastern Mediterranean to persist from the 4th to even the early 7th century (depending on local economic, religious, and political contingencies).

To be fair, the chapter on Byzantine archaeology is complemented by a nice chapter by Peter Sarris on “Economics, Trade, and ‘Feudalism'” which pays particular attention to the circulation of currency and the practical significance of identifying Byzantine coins in archaeological contexts.  Despite this contribution, the neglect of archaeology in this volume is remarkable.  Of course, it is always easy to say that no volume can even contain everything that every scholar deems central to the study of a particular period. But, on the other hand, the argument for including a robust discussion of Byzantine archaeology in a volume of this scope is hardly a reach.

Few areas of Byzantine studies have seen the vitality of Byzantine archaeology over the past several decades especially when it is considered under the wider banner of Medieval and Post-Medieval archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean.  As a little advertisement for myself (this is my blog!), it just so happens that Kostis Kourelis and I are working on an edited volume right now that will bring together some of the most recent contributions to the archaeological study of Byzantium, and we hope that it will contribute to the archaeology of Byzantium taking a more prominent place in the future of Byzantine studies.

Categories: Archaeology, Byzantium

Icons and Space (and Dreams) in Late Antiquity

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment

This week I received my annual copy of the Journal of Roman Archaeology.  It always arrives in the mid-fall when the weather has just begun to turn, and it gives me a good excuse to curl up in a comfortable chair and review the archaeology of the Roman world.  This year’s volume included a nice article by Paul Dilley entitled “Christian icon practice in apocryphal literature: the consecration and the conversion of synagogues into churches” JRA 23 (2010), 285-302 (notice no hyperlink!).

The article focuses less on the conversion of synagogues to churches and more on the role of icons in creating sacred space. Dilley draws his evidence from the oft-neglected body of apocyphal literature from Late Antiquity. These texts are typically ascribed to a Biblical figure or major bishop, but tend to be later, and generally speaking popular texts that often sought to give a contemporary tradition an august pedigree.  So when the use of icons to sanctify places begins to appear in these texts, there is real reason to think that this represents a shift in practice in the era in which they were written.  A classic example of the role of these apocryphal texts in legitimizing practices is the 6th century Laudatio Barnabae from Cyprus.  This text describes the discovery of Paul’s companion, Barnabas’s body, on Cyprus about a century earlier.  The story features the Bishop Anthemius of Salamais who has a series of dreams that lead him to the place where Barnabas was buried.  When he exhumes the body, he finds it clutching a copy of the Gospel of Matthew.  Ultimately this text comes to explain the construction of the church dedicated to St. Barnabas in Salamis, as well as explain the special privileges that the church of Cyprus held which emerged over the course of the later 5th century. Barnabas’s apostolic pedigree, the timely appearance of his body, and the presence of an autograph of the Gospel of Matthew, all helped to legitimize the church of Cyprus as an autonomous apostolic foundation.

Dilley highlights a series of similar stories which place relics or icons at the center of the founding of churches.  He also stresses that these foundation stories often include important liturgical elements which suggests that the stories do more than simply legitimize the founding of the church as a building, but link the founding of a church to annual rites celebrated to commemorate the event.  So the stories of the inventio (the discovery) of a relic, icon, or the body of a saint, has key liturgical elements that are reinforced through the rituals of commemoration in which the text plays a key role.  Processions, acclamations (kyrie eleison!), and the key role of the clergy all mark these texts as liturgical as well as simply devotional or “historical” texts.

The role of liturgy in the discovery of icons or relics is something that scholars have not necessarily fully realized.  In fact, some scholars have followed Peter Brown’s lead (.pdf) and seen icons as almost anti-clerical in that they allow for access to holiness outside of the control of the institutional church and the clergy.  In other words, there are ways that the veneration of icons and relics represent paths to holiness that end-run the clergy.  Dilley, however, has argued that stories in seemingly popular apocryphal literature not only commemorate the key role of icons and relics in creating sacred, liturgical space, but also embed this tradition within liturgical practices that tie the deeply personal holiness of the icon to the institutional holiness of the church.

As for the conversion of synagogues, I’ll admit to being less compelled by the final pages of Dilley’s article where he offers a very basic typology for the archaeological evidence relating to the conversion of synagogues to churches, but does not really bring it back to his far more provocative and exciting arguments about icons, liturgy, and the creation of Christian sacred space.  That being said, he makes a good point that the presence of icons in buildings newly converted to Churches – like the synagogue at Cagliara on Sardinia, the synagogue at Lydda, and the Pantheon in Rome – seems to be a key aspect in their consecration for Christian use by the 7th century.  This reminds me of a Coptic church I visited for Easter Vigil in Columbus, Ohio. The church had been converted from a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall to a Coptic church. While the unabashedly Protestant architecture of the building remained, the presence of Coptic icons on almost every flat surface marked out the repurposing of the space.

Categories: Byzantium, Late Antiquity

Byzantine Pottery from Sagalassos

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I was pretty surprise to see an article entitled “Middle-Late Byzantine Pottery from Sagalassos: Typo-Chronology and Sociocultural Interpretation” in the very recent Hesperia (A.K. Vionis, J. Poblome, B. De Cupere, M. Waelkens, Hesperia 79 (2010), 423-464).  It’s not so much that the subject matter is late, but that the site of Sagalassos is a Belgian project in Turkey rather than an American project in Greece.  As some of my more observant friends pointed out, Hesperia has published the results of project from Albania, so maybe this should not have caught be so off guard.  But it did and it indicates to me that Hesperia is continuing to expand its purview to include the wider world of Mediterranean archaeology. Hooray!

The article on the Middle-Late Byzantine material from Sagalassos is pretty cool as well.  The main focus of the article is on a series of 12th-13th century layers from the Alexander Hill at the site of Sagalassos.  Over three seasons of excavation, the excavators uncovered the remains of a “heavily burned” destruction layer containing the remains of a short-lived occupation containing a significant and robust quantity of 12th-13th century Byzantine pottery.  This layer appears to represent the final phase of activity on this dramatic hill overlooking the ancient site of Sagalassos.  Early occupation on the hill included a 5th-6th century basilica that was almost completely removed and a later “refuge” of some description with a fortification wall and a substantial cistern.  Apparently the church was almost completely dismantled for the construction of the later refuge. The final destruction layer, which seems to represent the final layer of occupation, may represent an effort to dismantle the refuge to prevent it from being used again.

While the site history of the Alexander Hill is pretty interesting (particularly the dismantling of the church), the real meat of the article is in the analysis of the ceramic assemblage from the final layer.  While I would like to have understood the sampling method the produced the assemblage, the authors nevertheless conduct a rigorous and thorough examination of the material and take into account both “common ware” (which we would call medium coarse, coarse, and kitchen/cooking ware in chronotype terminology) and glazed table wares (fine and and semi-fine wares in our terminology).  Some of the glazed wares were repaired indicating that the objects had significant value to their owners.  The presence of repaired pots in an assemblage associated with the destruction of the site, however, suggests (to me at least) that these vessels were either discarded by the last occupants of the refuge or brought to the site by work crews commissioned to destroy or salvage the remains of the site. I wish the article had made considered more thoroughly the formation processes at play in the creation of the assemblage from the burned layer including the possible nature of activities at the final occupation phase of the site.  If these materials were left by work crews (like the material associated with the final phase of activity at Kourion), then the diet, ceramics used, and social standing of the individuals could suggest a different assemblage from that left behind by a family.

Despite the origin of the pottery in a layer associated with the site’s destruction and short term occupation, they regard the material as sufficient diverse to qualify as a use assemblage and, therefore, suitable for making larger arguments for the nature of Byzantine cooking practices, diet, and the circulation of Byzantine glazed pottery and utility ware forms.  This was all supported by residue analysis of individual vessels and the quantitative analysis of the entire assemblage.  Apparently the individuals at Sagalassos ate more beef and game than their Late Roman predecessors (who preferred lamb and goat).  Pretty neat stuff.

The article places the material from the assemblage at Sagalassos in the context of the Byzantine Eastern Mediterranean and it will be really useful as we look to document a site with a similar history at Polis in Cyprus.  The material present at Sagalassos has comparanda both on Cyprus and, unsurprisingly, at Corinth in Greece where the study of Byzantine pottery has long held pride of place.  The careful publication of an assemblage from a site like Sagalassos expands the base of evidence for the further study of Byzantine pottery.  The appearance of an article like this in Hesperia should show scholars that there are high-quality journals prepared and willing to publish similar papers.

P.S. Lest you think that I’m just a blogger, you’ll notice that David Pettegrew, Sarah James, and I also have an article in this volume: “Towers and Fortifications at Vayia in the Southeast Corinthia,” Hesperia 79 (2010), 385-415.

Indigenous Archaeology Georgian Style

June 30, 2010 1 comment

One of the most exciting afternoon from this year in Cyprus involved a trip to the ruined monastery at Yialia in the mountains about Polis on the Western side of Cyprus.  According to textual sources, Georgian monks founded the monastery on the island in the 10th century and it was occupied until the 14th century.  The church is currently under study by a group of archaeologists from the Republic of Georgia with support, apparently, from the Archbishop of Cyprus.

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The monastic church itself is a traditional Athonite plan with its characteristic triconch arrangement. Massive cisterns, storeroom, and living quarters for the monks (apparently) extend from the church’s southern side. The monastic church underwent several significant modifications in plan including an extension to the narthex, rather significant adjustments to the eastern end of the church, a chapel annex on the northern side, and a very strange tetrapylon type structure abutting the southern apse of the Athonite triconch.  The ruins preserve some wall painting on the upper, more sheltered parts of the collapsed vaults, as well as some better preserved frescoes which were built around during the buildings numerous modifications.

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The most interesting thing about this very curious building is how it is used today.  The ruins of the church are currently used for the celebration of liturgy.  A portable altar and prothesis stand at the eastern end of the church despite the ruinous condition of the sanctuary space.

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Incense burners and evidence for the burning of candles dot the various ledges and niches of the ruined walls.  The practice of re-using excavated, yet nevertheless consecrated sacred space is not entirely rare.  I observed a similar phenomenon at the church of St. Tychon near Amathous, for example.  It does, however, shed some valuable light on the intersection of long-standing forms of religious archaeology (dream archaeology being just one example) and modern “scientific” archaeological practice.  This kind of provision use of a ruined church may also reflect some of the practices common to ancient and Byzantine Christianity where churches damaged by earthquakes or neglect continue to be places of intermittent devotional practices.

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Making this point all the more clear, a casket occupies of the center of the nave.  Apparently the excavations revealed a number of burials around the church and the monastic complex.  A few of these burials appear to be marked by small, Georgian style crosses.

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It seems reasonable to assume that the remains from these excavated grave sites are placed in the conspicuous casket.  Apparently, the Georgian church plans to build a new monastery nearby and perhaps the bones of these now excavated monks will be brought to rest there.

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The architecture, decoration, inscriptions (some in Georgian), and artifacts from this church will surely contribute to our understanding of the multi-ethnic character of Medieval Cyprus.  More than that, however, the combination of “scientific” archaeology and Christian devotional practices shows the potential for a kind of indigenous archaeological practice to exist alongside largely “western” (by some definition) archaeological practices, methods, and presumably epistemology.

More on Polis

One of the great conversations that I had this past week at Polis Chysochous centered on how one goes about publishing a complex site or sites.  Starting this fall, (as I discussed yesterday) a dynamic and diverse team of Late Antique, Byzantine, and Medieval scholars (Amy Papalexandrou, Kyle Killian, Sarah Lepinski, R. Scott Moore, Nora Laos, and myself) are planning to publish two multi-phase Christian churches excavated over the last 20 years in the village of Polis.  The sites are relatively complex architecturally with numerous overlapping and interrelated phases; they have also produced robust assemblages of Late Antique to Medieval ceramics, highly fragmentary wall painting, glass, and mortuary remains.

In a traditional publication each of these materials would have its own discrete section (or perhaps even volume) produced after a period of careful study by a specialist.  For example, Amy, Nora, and I would study the architecture and publish it complete with a description, comparanda, and comments on the significance of this architecture for existing typologies.  Kyle and Scott would perform a similar study of the ceramics; Sarah would study and publish the wall painting.  These practices have their roots in the history of discipline of archaeology (and the humanities more broadly).  In the first half of the 20th century (outside brief pockets of critique), the humanities emphasized the mastery of (highly!) specialized bodies of material which collectively would contribute to the expanding pool of knowledge on a give topic.  This empirical mode of research favored intensive, specialized, and discrete studies which would build a enduring body of factual knowledge.

Over the last 40 years (and perhaps more recently in the proudly anachronistic world of Mediterranean archaeology), scholarship have moved to more highly integrative approaches to research. These approaches have implicitly (or more recently explicitly) recognized that discrete bodies of knowledge exist only in relation to complex interpretative processes.  These interpretative processes inform both the hypotheses that guide our research as well as the techniques that we use to collect data to evaluate these hypotheses.  In other words, a body of factual knowledge does not exist outside interpretation.  The goal of producing an enduring body of empirically sound knowledge is simply not attainable.

As a result of this trend, scholars have worked to produce more richly integrated, interpretative publications across the humanities.  While vestiges of earlier practices persist in catalogue of finds and narrow specialist studies of distinct artifact types, these practices are increasingly arranged in relation to large archaeological and historical problems.  Our efforts at Polis will, I hope, look to how the assemblage of ceramic material informs how we understand the architecture and decoration of these buildings; at the same time, I hope that the architecture informs our interpretation of the decorative material and the ceramics present at the site.  The interplay between these various bodies of material create the interpretative space which we hope will produce a richer, more clearly historically relevant publication of the site.  In short, our study will regard the material culture (architecture, ceramics, plaster, et c.) of the past as both the product and the producer of historical interpretation.

This approach is not novel, and on Cyprus we have some great models (particularly Marcus Rautman’s publication of the churches at Kopetra), but it is not universally applied.  What could make our approach interesting, however, is that we will attempt to implement it as a team of specialists (rather than as a single visionary scholar who can command a vast body of material).  Wish us luck!