Archaeology and Craft in the 21st Century

July 30, 2014 § 2 Comments

It feels very odd to say that a conversation on Twitter spurred me to think a bit more about archaeology as craft. Yesterday a group of archaeologists, mainly in the U.K., and seemingly spurred by Colleen Morgan who began a discussion on the decline of the craft of excavation spurred in part by a rereading of C. Tilley’s well-known article on archaeology as theater. Tilley speaks out against the growing (in 1989) fixation with gathering information in archaeology that privileges excavation (particularly salvage excavations) and manifests itself in the dreadfully scientific site report. The published reports in excavation tend to reduce the complexity of excavations and conform to what Tilley sees as a kind of “strident professionalism” that limits access to meaningful readings of the past. Nowhere is this more evident, at least for Tilley, than in the practice of excavation focused solely on a research question articulated by an archaeologist. Instead, Tilley suggests that archaeologists should entertain the possibility of less scientific excavation to open the process to the voices and hands of the community as a way to generate a truly multi-vocal articulation of the past. Here’s a link to Sarah May’s take on the article.

Tilley’s argument is short, dense, and not entirely convincing, at least in the 21st century. He does, however, identify some of the key problems with scientific excavation characteristic of disciplinary archaeology. The disciplinary tendency to expect (or at least to present) linear progress from data collection to final publication embeds professional archaeological knowledge within a tradition of industrial production that is one with the basic structure of the modern American university. This is the point of departure for many of my observations on archaeology as craft.

At the same time that I was eavesdropping on this Twitter conversation and reacquainting myself with Tilley’s article, I was also reading a pre-publication draft of an article by Sara Perry. I won’t spoil the fun before its 2014 publication, but the title is “Crafting Knowledge with (Digital) Visual Media in Archaeology.” Set aside Collen Morgan’s work, it has reminded me that there are compelling efforts to bridge the gap between digital tools and craft practice. (My efforts were NOT compelling in any way.)

Anyway, these conversations have spurred me to make three observation.

1. Slow. As with everything on this blog, I can’t help but make this conversation about my own work (although Shawn Graham who brought me into the Twitter conversation indulged me as well). My interest in Slow Archaeology has less to do with the pace of archaeological work (either excavation or survey) and more to do with creating an alternative to the kind of method-driven, industrial practices that have emerged as a component of disciplinary archaeology. If methodology promotes a transparent and – as much as possible – linear relationship between field procedures, analysis, and interpretation, then Slow Archaeology advocation complicating this process. Tilley offers one way to complicate the mechanical (if not mechanistic), method driven disciplinary archaeology by making room for practitioners to think about archaeological work outside of atomistic data recovery guided by hypothesis testing. 

Survey archaeology is particularly suitable to this kind of practice because it is largely non-destructive. Walking across a landscape without a notebook or a camera might seem like an effete indulgence of 21st century Western intellectuals or even a lingering expression of colonial dominance (and these critiques are consistent with views of the Slow movement more generally). On the other hand, this practice would promote – even just for a time – a less-structured engagement with the archaeological landscape.

2. Embodied Knowledge. Sara Perry’s article reminded me to read Pamela Smith’s The Body of the Artisan (Chicago 2004). It has been on my “to read” list for about three years, but I think that I need to move toward a more sophisticated understanding of the role the body plays in knowledge production. I was particularly interested this summer in the posture of our team leaders and field walkers. Team leaders consistently presented hunched shoulders over a form on the clipboard and field walkers carry an inclined head toward the ground scanning a narrow swath of the surface to either side of the path.


To me, this posture makes clear the shift away from viewing the landscape as a unified space and toward a view of the archaeological universe that privileges distinct bits of data, recorded diligently, and the projected on computer generated maps for analysis. Over the course of our field season on the Western Argolid Regional Project, I encouraged team leaders and students to tilt their heads up from time to time to take in the larger landscape, but the pressures of covering as much ground as possible and documenting the presence of individual sherds on the surface of the ground.

We can contrast that with, for example, the posture that archaeologists have when illustrating a feature. In the photo below, we can see how our two archaeologists are literally part of the object they are illustrating (an Ottoman bridge). Their posture and position (although not necessary when they’re smiling for the camera!) reflects a different engagement with the archaeological object.



3. Craft and Archaeology in the 21st Century. All of this thinking about craft and archaeology (and a small, but compelling body of recent scholarship) has me thinking that I should run another series of guest blog posts on the topic. That our conversations have begun in Twitter is perfect for this kind of digitally mediated conversation. My growing experience moving text from the blog to more traditional paginated medium (see two soon to appear books based on the Punk Archaeology blog (and conference) and the series of posts on 3D Modeling Mediterranean Archaeology) is itself a manifestation of craft practice and becoming familiar with the tools and technologies required to move documents through the process of publication. 

So, here’s a draft proposal:

Archaeologists have become increasingly interested in the intersection between the growing number of new digital tools, methodologies, and field procedures, and the longstanding traditions of archaeological expertise and practice. This interest reflects both optimism for a more highly visible, transparent, and democratic archaeology, but also a concern for the skills and knowledge that will be lost as archaeology fully embraces its place as a (post)industrial discipline. This conversation is not distinct to archaeology, of course, with scholars across the humanities and social sciences reflecting on the potential of “craft” as a meaningful and familiar way to articulate what we may be losing.

Who would be interested in contributing to this kind of forum? I volunteer my blog to host it and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota to push out a quick publication. 

Trash, Pollution, and the Rural World

July 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have really enjoyed getting back into some scholarly habits the past couple weeks. I have even engaged in this primitive activity where I open a bound stack of paper and read the words, in order, written on each. I’ve heard that some scholars call it reading.

I was pretty excited to read some of the contributions to the Stephanie Foote’s and Elizabeth Mazzolini’s little volume called Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Culture, Social Justice (MIT 2012). The book collects a series of articles on the history of trash, waste, and rubbish, and grounds them, to varying degrees, in the cross-disciplinary nexus of material culture studies and critical theory. The book, however, avoids being too theory laden and manages to speak to practical issues as much as conceptual ones. This practical edge reflects a particular strength of recent work on the history of trash and discard.  

The article that caught my attention most in the volume was Phaedra Pezullo’s “What Gets Buried in a Small Town: Toxic E-Waste and Democratic Frictions in the Crossroads of the United States.” She looks at the politics surrounding the discard of PCB in Bloomington, Indiana and locates her treatment in a larger consideration of rurality and pollution in American (although arguably also in global) history. Marginal places, like the rural west (e.g. North Dakota or Alamogordo, New Mexico) become the settings for morally ambiguous practices. It is hardly a leap to apply many of these paper to my recent research in the Bakken Oil Patch in sparsely populated western North Dakota or role in excavating Atari games from a landfill at the edge of a small town in New Mexico. 

In fact, the long Western tradition of sparsely populated, “wild” places as the source of various kinds of corrupting influences (from the so-called Germanic hordes who supposedly destroyed the Roman world to the uncivilized “wildlings” in the Game of Thrones) has provided a context for activities that would be far more problematic in the more densely built up core. The willingness to treat the periphery in a different way also captures the binary logic of Western colonialism where behaviors and attitudes unacceptable in the core meet with ambivalence in colonial places.

This process of internal colonization follows the rough and irregular edge of a rural-urban divide across the United States. Pollution caused by extractive industries in, say, the Bakken Oil Patch in western North Dakota, is simply the “price of progress” for residents of the core and for small communities who see sacrifice as a road to deeper integration with the core and access to economic and political power. In Pezullo’s study of Bloomington, Indiana, the social, economic, and political power of companies like Westinghouse helped to protect the use of PCBs in manufacturing in Indiana even as the risks became visible and known to the community. The absence of strong counterweights to wealthy and powerful corporate interests pervades the Bakken as well.  

Pezullo’s observations on pollution in rural America could likewise be applied to the dumping of thousands of unsold and returned Atari video games in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This moment in time reflects the “remoteness” of Almagordo from the prying eyes of shareholders. The presence of White Sands missile range nearby only reinforces the suitability for this sparsely populated stretch of rural land for activities set apart from the settlements and interests of most Americans. 

The next paper in the book looked at the discard and collection of trash on the slopes of Mt. Everest. Further chapters considered the pollution present in minority neighborhoods impacted by hurricane Katerina in New Orleans. Most of the papers considers the social construction of discard practices and pollution as mediated through varying degrees of economic and political remoteness. For anyone interested in grasping better how trash fits into our modern (and arguably premodern) world, the studies contained in this volume are valuable reads. 

Punk Archaeology, Digital Humanities, and DIY

July 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

A few weeks back my buddy Paul Worley penned an interesting blog post on digital humanities and “getting hit by the proverbial bus.” The post talked about the ripple effect of Joel Jonientz’s death in our little digital humanities community on campus. For the University of North Dakota, the digital humanities was an explicitly collaborative affair with almost all of the successful project from the Working Group in Digital and New Media involving more than one member. It seems like Joel was central to most of these projects as much for his willingness to learn a new skill (or fake it) as his interest in what another member of the Working Group called “O.P.P.” (other people’s projects).  

One of the consequences of Joel’s passing is that many of us have had to pick up where he left off and actually try to learn new tools to complete our projects. The good Dr. Worley learned to animate using Photoshop, Dr. Ommen deployed his raw, but vivid illustrating skills to finish his adaption of Isocrates’ Against the Sophists, and I rolled up my sleeves and immersed myself in the intricacies of Adobe’s InDesign to keep The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota afloat. It is appropriate that the first book that I worked on is an edited collection of essays on Punk Archaeology where the DIY ethic thrives and compromised production values represent an aesthetic choice as much as a practical reality. 

As Paul noted, dynamic, collaborative Digital Humanities projects should always be somewhat fragile as DIY skills pass from one collaborator to the next and projects transform in changing contexts.  The significance and potential of collaboration will always extend beyond specific outcomes – e.g. a book or a successful grant proposal – and the value of catalytic individuals like Joel and spaces for collaboration like the Working Group, is in the transfer of specialized skills from one member of the collaboration to the next. From the university’s perspective, this transfer of skills provides stability and continuity for (sometimes well-funded) initiatives. From an individual faculty perspective, however, the fuzzy outcomes of digital humanities initiatives which often come in the form of skills rather than products, can be difficult to articulate, for example, within traditional tenure and promotion guidelines. To some, this tension is terrifying and represents the contradiction between the goals of the university as a community and the expectations placed on its individual members.

That being said, the task of taking new skills and using them is pretty scary too.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

July 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

I know its been a while, but after a little summer hiatus, I think I’ll start up my Friday Quick Hits and Varia again. There has been a  good bit of interesting stuff this summer on the interwebs and I’ll do what I can to sort through my backlog and pass on the greatest hits.

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Archaeology, Punk and Drunk

July 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

Yesterday was a big day for various alternative archaeologies (for lack of a better term). Andrew Reinhard premiered his Drunk Archaeology podcast and Josh Wheeler’s story appeared on Harpers webpage on the punk archaeologist involvement in the Atari excavation this spring. Andrew Reinhard was the inspiration and organizational force behind both of these things, and his energy and enthusiasm for exploring the edges of the profession is inspiring and thought provoking. 

In the Harpers’ piece I was called the soul of the punk archaeology movement although the author admitted that he didn’t quite understand what it was. This has become a persistent problem for punk archaeology. I spend more time attempting to convince folks that punk archaeology does not need to have a cohesive, unified philosophy, method, or approach than talking about what the intersection of something like the punk aesthetic could mean for a discipline like Mediterranean archaeology. For me, at least, punk archaeology has more to do with challenging the traditional conventions of archaeological practice both in the field and in our approach to disseminating knowledge. A conference and concert, for example, in a local watering hole in Fargo represented an unconventional way to tell stories about archaeological practice. Self-publishing either on a blog or by creating a small press (stay tuned!), represents another angle where a DIY and anti-conventional approach to the production and presentation of archaeological knowledge comes to the fore. The issue with these kind of DIY approaches is that they fit awkwardly within the current model of professionalism which depends upon a structured network of relationships (a community of practice?) to authorize new archaeological knowledge. Peer review, for example, depends upon both institutional structures and the mutual understanding of collegial rank and status (i.e. being peers).  

At the Atari excavation the punk approach to archaeology manifest as a critique of late capitalism which both colonized archaeology in the interest in the (apparently stillborn) effort to produce content for Microsoft’s X-box platform and created the object of their investigation: Atari’s E.T. video game. Like my work around workforce housing in the Bakken Oil Patch, punk archaeology attempted to position itself in a way to critique the changing nature of material, labor, and consumer culture. The archaeological aspects of both projects focused on the quickening pace of contemporary society where objects and settlements moved more quickly from objects of desire to artifacts of study. The pace of culture means that archaeology as a discipline must engage an ambiguous body of material that is flowing at an alarming rate from objects in use in everyday life to archaeological artifacts. 

Punk archaeology looks to blur lines at the edges of the discipline. In some ways, this is good. It opens up our discipline to think about new ways of doing things, which range from new approaches and methods to new ideological commitments and new definitions of disciplinary limits.

On the other hand, professional archaeology and academia in general worked to democratize the production of knowledge. It is a bit concerning that punk rock music, despite its flirtation with gender bending and androgyny, and to some extent punk archaeology is a movement (can I really call it that?) that shares this aggressive, masculine encoding. More than that, punk had strong roots in a white, suburban subculture and often rejected middle or even upper class values while at the same time romanticizing a kind of lost urbanism in decades characterized by white flight and disintegration of traditional cities. As much as academic professionalism remains committed to a commodified and industrial model of knowledge production, it had the useful side-effect of  breaking down some the gender, racial, and economic barriers that had made academia a bastion of white, male, upper class privilege. On its best days, punk archaeology seeks to critique the professionalization of the academy (and the contemporary rise of the post-industrial assessocracy) while preserving the gains that this process has made.  

Andrew Reinhard’s Drunk Archaeology goes even further along the lines of blurring professional boundaries. If the DIY of punk archaeology rejects many of the institutional character of knowledge production, Drunk Archaeology challenges professional standards even further. As E.P. Thompson and others have argued intoxication has a long tradition as a form of resistance. The most famous manifestation of this is St. Monday when workers would be absent on Monday as they recovered from weekend indulgences. Drunk Archaeology continues in this tradition by injecting alcohol into an rollicking conversation about the site of Pompeii with Eric Poehler and Francesca Tronchin. The podcast shares many of the characteristics of punk archaeology (and punk rock) with its raw language, challenged production standards, and intellectual irreverence. Reinhard manages to use the drunkenness of the conversation to good effect punctuating the conversation with the clinking of ice in refilled glasses and swirly audio effects as three participants romp through the history and archaeology of Pompeii. The podcast is good despite its rough production and oddly unscripted chat. Think of as the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams

It ask shares with Punk Archaeology a bit of ambivalence in its critique. Is the drunkenness meant to be simply playful? Or is it meant as a hat tip to traditions of the booze-soaked, hyper-masculine, preprofessional archaeologist who follows a honed intuition rather than methodology or formal training to discover the past. Could it even be a subtle wink to the parallels between archaeology and the long, complex, and damaging history of alcohol in a colonial context?  

I think I’d prefer to read (listen?) to the podcast as a more complex critique which uses alcohol as a way to challenge the overwhelming force of rationality, methodology, and scientism in our discipline and instead emphasizes the passion, mystique, and … fun, of archaeological work. As much as I am skeptical of the scientific, dry-as-dust, method driven archaeology of the 21st century, I can also see the risks in this statement (just as I am aware of the risks in my punk archaeology). None of us really want to return to the days of informal, ribald, and chaotic colonialist archaeology any more than we’d want Johnny Thunders excavating a sensitive context. But we both would like our discipline to be more aware of how professional limits shape the kind of knowledge we produce. 

Go check them both out and decide for yourself.

Expertise and Audiophiles

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Over the last few months, Scot Hull over at Parttime Audiophile has been putting together some very thoughtful posts on what it means to be an expert in the audiophile community. These posts were nominally in response to rather defeatist (or perhaps nihilistic) essay by Roger Skoff. Skoff basically argues that there is no such thing as an audiophile expert. This is a nice, democratizing sentiment, but unfortunately most of us know (and rely upon) expertise. Scot Hull responded with a five part reply: part 1, part 2.1, 2.2, part 3, part 4. The entire thing is worth reading and I wish I had the intellectual discipline to respond to his posts, but I don’t. Instead, I’m going to offer my take on the subject. I’m going to argue that expertise in the audiophile community is a key component in our community of practice and, my little essay will keep in the background lessons I’ve learned from Julian Orr’s landmark study of Xerox repair people


Before anyone reads on, you should understand that of us who fussy and fiddle with our two-channel stereo systems obsessively are a strangle lot of people. We tend to have strong opinions about gear, sound, and music and support them with our (mostly) hard earned cash dollars. As a result, we tend to be a contentious lot and engage as much in debates about equipment over whose advice and opinions we should trust as experts.

The concept of being an expert on how high-end stereo equipment works and sounds is not all that difficult to grasp, of course. Folks who design and engineer equipment have a practical grasp of how to transform electricity into the sound that we’re willing to pay top dollar to enjoy. These individuals, however, are not the object of Mr. Hull’s thoughtful remarks because few would dispute their authority and understanding in matters of sound reproduction.

Mr. Hull sets his sights on the other, more ambiguous group of experts who fill paper and web pages with opinions and work at serious stereo stores all around the world. These individuals tout various products, communicate difficult and obscure technical details to the public, and engage in sometimes rancorous debates regarding the quality (and, less frequently, value) of particular equipment and approaches to sound. Sonic measurements, technical details, and other “objective” arguments animate discussions among audiophiles especially on hot-button issues like the value of expensive, highly-engineered cables, speaker design philosophies, or various room tuning devices.

The core of these audiophile conversations, however, is the description of sound using words. Most audiophiles love to listen to music and stereo equipment, but also love to read about, discuss, and even watch other people listen to stereo equipment and music. The interplay between our own listening and the listening of others provides a structured set of expectations way in the pages of audiophile magazines, websites, and in retail establishments. Audiophile experts deploy transferred epithets in a way that would make Homer (the poet, not the Simpson) proud. They easily talk about speakers being “bright”, headphones being “smokey”, amplifiers having “rhythm” and so much “intimacy” that it is sometimes hard not to blush. Parallel to and interspersed with this poetic language, is the technical language of “zero feedback”, “single-end triodes”, “jitter”, “dual resonant intermodulation minimization”, and, of course “illudium Q-36 explosive space modulators”.


This is all to say that as audiophiles we both listen to music and read (and listen) to people talk about music. Within this community, experts carry authority primarily through how they write and talk about sound. There is a consistency in vocabulary and even in tone that characterizes audiophile conversations. Major consumer publications like The Absolute Sound and Stereophile have establishes standards for the kind of language used in the audiophile community. Major web publications like Scot’s Confessions of a Parttime Audiophile, the impossible to navigate 6Moons, or John Darko’s Digital Audio Review follow more or less along the same lines as the print publications. There is some little overlap between contributors to web and print publications, but authors and publishers of web concerns regularly contribute to other websites. Darko writes from TONEAudio and 6Moons. Scot Hull has written for the headphone-oriented Audio360 and The Absolute Sound. The ease with which authors can move across various sites both reflect and contributes to the common tone and approach to describing audio gear. Even the homey and relaxed tone of Jeff Day at his Jeff’s Place blog belies his contributor status at Positive Feedback Online.

The willingness and ability to communicate in a common language and tone is only part of what constitutes expertise in the audiophile community. Most experts in our hobby have access to more exotic brands which can have exorbitant costs and exceedinly limited distributions. Most of will not have the luxury of auditioning in our own home D’Agostino amplifiers or Wilson Speakers not to mention smaller more bespoke brands who create products when ordered or lack robust distribution networks. Experts in the audiophile community mediate access to expensive, rare, and high-quality gear through the use of a common language. As non-experts, we may not always agree with these experts in their opinions of high-end stereo equipment, but they nevertheless have access to equipment that we do not.

This intersection of readers and writers in the field of high-end stereo equipment creates what some have called a community of practice. These communities function through a series of shared expectations and mutually understood actions. Not all members of the community will share equally in the prestige within the community, access, or technical proficiency. In fact, the community includes both the audience for experts as well as the experts themselves.

This almost too long discussion (although not as long as Scot’s) is meant to contribute his efforts to define expertise in our hobby. That we have struggled to define the character of experts in our community is not a huge surprise. The conversation about audio gear depends on how we talk about equipment that in many cases we will never own or even hear. The nature of expertise in this context depends as much on how we talk about things as the things themselves.

Containers and Connectivity

July 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

If you haven’t read Andrew Bevan’s recent article in Current Archaeology, you should drop everything and read it now. It’s titled “Mediterranean Containerization” and presents a concise history of containers for trade in the Mediterranean basin from prehistory to modern times. His article begins with amphora and moves to barrels, crates, modern shipping containers, and, of course, wood pallets. His main focus is on liquid products, olive oil and wine, and his argument centers on the “precocious” character of these containers in a Mediterranean context. I won’t even attempt to summarize his intricate arguments on this blog post, but I want to highlight a few things from it.

1. Mediterranean connectivity (or liquidity in Bevan’s terms, a clever play on the liquid in Mediterranean containers and the liquid state of the sea through which these containers travelled). Bevan makes the point that the connection between various Mediterranean regions created an environment susceptible for certain parallel strategies to mediate interregional contact. While Bevan is careful to avoid any kind of environmental determinism, he does note that the need to communicate through the network of Mediterranean places (and here we can clearly see the shadow of both Horden and Purcell’s and Cyprian Broodbank’s works)  required certain technological solutions. The development of the ceramic amphora and certain changes of these vessel shapes, capacity, and distribution demonstrate the shifting contingencies of the political, economic, and social life in the Mediterranean basin. 

2. Reuse. For Bevan, the significance of containers extends well beyond their primary use as transport vessels. Storage vessels designed for large scale transport of goods around the Mediterranean basin often enjoyed long lives as local storage containers, burial pots, and even houses. The ubiquitous character of these transport amphora and other containers created a kind of utilitarian koine built around the adaptive reuse of these objects. In modern times, the reuse of shipping containers and (yes!) wooden shipping pallets, provides a good example about how the containerization of transport creates a medium for other expressions of culture. My pallet project and studies of the famous “blue tarp” follow certain lines by showing how these ubiquitous aspects of global transport culture have created distinct modes of expression characteristic of our contemporary culture.


3. Amphoras and Other Transport. One thing that Bevan notes is that amphora were not the only way in which commodities were moved around the Mediterranean landscape. I can’t recommend enough my buddy Scott Gallimore’s recent article in the most recent ZPE on some ostraka from Chersonesos on Crete. Scott argues that these ostraka (as well as some from near Carthage in North Africa) were chits used to record the transfer of wine from skins used in overland transport to amphora for overseas exports from Crete. The use of wine or oil skins to transport goods from small producers overland is something often overlooked by scholars who have tended to see amphoras almost exclusively as the marker of trade contacts. 

This has particular significance for my site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus where we have a superabundance of Late Roman 1 amphora. It may be that these locally produced amphora (although not at our site) received olive oil from the region around Koutsopetria and it was transferred to amphora for export at our site, and this accounts for the massive quantity of amphora sherds at our site.

4. Responses and a Reply. I really liked the format of the article which included several responses which almost read like peer reviews of the article. The editors let Bevan reply to the critiques and he clarified some of the more controversial or opaque statements. The conversational aspect of the article expanded how I read his work. In particular, some of the respondents showed interest in thinking about how these containers manifested a Latourian sense of agency. Bevan does not talk in any great detail about this but the first respondents clearly thought that this was a productive route for further inquiry transforming the meaning of the article through their research interests.

The wealth of this article is almost impossible to summarize. It is among the most stimulating articles I’ve read for quite some time. As with most of Bevan’s stuff, his work is grounded in empirical research, and while there are a few little issues that our hardcore ceramicists (Mark Lawall’s comments demonstrate this) will pick up on and dispute, it is more important to appreciate the larger concepts involved his efforts. And even if you disagree with all of his conclusions, you have to admire his willingness to present in an article a synthetic overview of something as profoundly significant as containerization in a Mediterranean. His work will at very least be a point of departure.


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