Friday Varia and Quick Hits

September 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

We may have one more day of summer today with temperatures set to reach a balmy 86 degrees here in North Dakotaland. Do society a favor and don’t call it an “Indian Summer” or “Altweibersommer.” I’m just going to call it a warm day in late September. And, don’t worry, Grand Forks will be back to its sleepy, bucolic fall decline by the end of next week.

In the meantime, when you’re not enjoying the warm days and the gentle patter of a late summer rain, please do enjoy these quick hits and varia.  

IMG 1917I can groove to Duke.

Craft in Archaeology: The Craft of Pottery Analysis in Mediterranean Archaeology

September 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

This is the second installment in a series of blog posts focusing on craft in archaeology. Here’s a link to the call for submissions. The posts will explore craft in archaeology from the perspective of field practices, analytical and interpretative frameworks, and social impacts on the discipline. The posts will appear every Thursday for as long as we get contributions and compiled into a e-book by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Scott Gallimore, Wilfrid Laurier University

The idea of archaeology as craft is intriguing. Archaeology is a discipline which combines a number of elements from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. We ‘borrow’ methodologies perhaps more so than any other field, combining them to form a coherent body of theory and method. Archaeology is not standardized across the world, however, and a number of sub-fields exist, divided by geographical and chronological boundaries. Classical Archaeology is interesting to consider in the context of craft, given its strong historical connections to art history and antiquarianism. Scientific perspectives, such as New Archaeology, have not had as strong an influence on classicists as in other areas of archaeology. How does this affect our view of Classical Archaeology as a craft?

This post will focus on one aspect of Classical Archaeology as craft: the analysis of pottery. Ceramic specialists are an important component of any project, often dealing with the most robust and copious body of material collected. In many ways, pottery analysis adheres strongly to ideas of craft as they are espoused in the article by Shanks and McGuire (1996). Consideration of the use of an apprentice structure for training specialists, the increasing integration of technology, and the place of pottery specialists within the hierarchy of archaeology, for instance, sheds light on this issue. The analysis of pottery in its present form arose out of nineteenth century methodologies and, in many ways, adheres to this structure. It is not stagnant, however, and is a craft that continues to evolve. The discussion below will hopefully show the benefits and difficulties with this evolution.

An Apprentice Structure

Since the formalization of Classical Archaeology as a discipline, the training of scholars to become specialists in the analysis of particular materials has followed an apprentice system. Pottery analysis, for example, relies on passing knowledge from experienced to non-experienced scholars. This adheres to the ‘traditional scheme of archaeological fieldwork’ according to Shanks and McGuire (1996: 84). Labs often have one or two trained specialists who are assisted by students. The students gain experience working with the ‘masters’ and in some cases may even become specialists themselves.

Shanks and McGuire note that the alternative to the apprentice structure, the factory model, has developed mainly within the jurisdiction of contract and rescue archaeology (1996: 84). The apprentice structure, which promotes the training of students as one of its primary goals, is not as effective in the context of Culture Resource Management. Instead, hiring pre-trained students who can then be assigned to various tasks which in combination bring about an efficient completion to a project is preferable. Proponents of this model within the academy tend to be associated with the New Archaeology, with its greater emphasis of scientific approaches to the discipline.

For Mediterranean archaeology, is a factory model feasible? The primary goal of this model is to increase efficiency by standardizing the methodology and dividing tasks across a series of workers. It favors a top-down structure where the project director or directors would be the only ones familiar with every aspect of the work. To one extent, some aspects of this model already exist within our own field. I am likely not alone in sometimes feeling separated from many components of a project by spending most days in a lab. There is a disconnect that arises from focusing on a specific set of data collected by a project. On most projects in the Mediterranean, however, it is unlikely that many individuals have a command of every task being completed. Directors often spend most of their time in the field or in the lab and may not be familiar with the other. Most directors do not view themselves as CEOs of project who require oversight into every minute detail. Thus, even though pottery specialists may feel marginalized at times, we are not alone in this feeling.

Pottery analysts are also moving toward a greater degree of standardization. This is particularly true for the study of fabric, as noted below, and is apparent in other ways, such as the use of distinct terminology. We can only push this so far, however. For decades, pottery analysis was not a standardized field and the number of unique typologies and descriptive methodologies that arose makes almost any overarching standardization impossible. The study of Roman pottery has many of examples of this phenomenon. If we take amphorae, for instance, many of the most common vessel types encountered across the Mediterranean have a remarkable number of names. The Kapitän II, a third–fourth century A.D. wine container perhaps produced in or around Asia Minor, is also known as the Niederbieber 77, Peacock and Williams class 47, the Benghazi Middle Roman 7, the Zeest 79, the Kuzmanov 7, and the Hollow Foot Amphora. Trying to research a vessel type when it is part of so many different typologies can almost be an act of futility. It also suggests that no matter how much standardization is introduced into pottery analysis, there must also be flexibility to engage with these historical precedents and to train students in understanding the complex past of the discipline.

The history of pottery analysis in Mediterranean archaeology indicates that an apprentice system is still the best system for training individuals to study this material. Hands-on practical experience under the supervision of an experienced instructor is necessary both for learning about the standardized practices that are now in use and about the myriad variations to these practices that appear in older publications and that are still relevant to the field today.

Technology and Pottery Analysis

In his proposal for this blog series, Bill Caraher noted that one significant issue for understanding the role of craft in archaeology is the ever-increasing presence of technology. He asked whether the use of this technology could ‘…marginalize opportunities for engagements grounded in craft.’ Pottery analysis is not immune to the technological revolution. Consideration of how this affects ceramic specialists is lacking, however. One risk with engaging more with technology is that it will erode away traditional skill bases in favor of more efficient (but not necessarily more effective) methodologies. Assessment of the types of technology employed by pottery analysts, and their goals in doing so, suggests an opposing view. Use of technology may actually augment the skills we are required to possess since effective use of this equipment requires keen understanding of the material we are studying.

An example of the interaction between pottery specialists and technology can be found in the study of fabric. In the preface to their book Amphorae and the Roman Economy: An Introductory Guide, David Peacock and David Williams make the following comment:

Another feature of this book is the stress upon fabrics as well as forms, because we feel that a consideration of both facets is essential if amphorae are to be identified with the precision that now seems necessary in economic analysis. We make no apology for including details of the characteristics of fabrics as they appear in the hand specimen and under the microscope, for this aspect is all too often neglected (1986: xvii).

For a pottery specialist working in the Mediterranean today, the assertiveness of Peacock and Williams’ view toward including details about fabrics is surprising. Now it would be the scholar who does not engage in fabric analysis who would have to apologize and justify his or her position. The study of fabric has become an essential component of ceramic analysis and one that has been aided greatly by technological innovation.

A number of archaeometric methods, both chemical and mineralogical, have been brought to bear for analysis of fabrics. Petrography is the most ubiquitous. Developed originally as a tool for studying soil and stone, petrography has a long history in the study of archaeological ceramics. Anna O. Shepard was an early proponent during her work in the southwestern United States (1942). Petrography was also in use by Classical Archaeologists around the same time (e.g. Felts 1942). The technique was not widespread, however. It is only within the past two decades that Mediterranean pottery specialists have come to include petrography as a standard part of their analytical program. Much of this is owed to Peacock who promoted the advantages of petrographic analysis in much of his early scholarship (e.g. 1970: 379).

Petrography has several advantages over other archaeometric techniques. It is relatively inexpensive, for instance, which is an important consideration within the present climate of dwindling funding.  The technique also provides a wider array of data about ceramics than most archaeometric methods, a detail noted by Peacock: ‘…the potential of petrology has been widely appreciated but recently other methods, more readily automated, seem to be favoured, even though the results may not have the same range of archaeological implications’ (1977: viii). In addition to providing information about the fabric that can lead to determinations of provenance, petrography can shed light on manufacturing processes, including the selection of raw materials, firing techniques, forming processes, and decoration (Peterson 2009: 2). More data is never a bad thing, which is perhaps why petrography has become so popular.

We must also consider Peacock’s comment about many of these techniques being automated. In other words, to what extent do pottery specialists actually engage with this technology? Petrography is again an interesting example since much of the analysis is done by trained petrographers and not by pottery specialists. We see the results of the study and incorporate them into our own analysis of the finds, but do not necessarily stare into the microscope on a regular basis. How does this affect our view of pottery as a craft? Is there a risk that archaeometric methods like petrography are beginning to replace the need for qualified specialists to examine ceramic assemblages? The answer to the latter question must be no. We can consider a scenario, for instance, where a ceramic assemblage is laid out with the intention of taking samples for petrographic analysis. A pottery specialist trained in analysing macroscopic qualities of fabric and shape is far more effective at selecting a representative sample of sherds from the pile. Moreover, the increased desire to use scientific techniques for studying pottery now requires pottery analysts to be much more vigilant in their study of the material. Detailed descriptions of fabric are now the norm in addition to careful division of the assemblage into known and unknown fabrics, with further subdivisions based on identified or suspected regions of production.

The need for more standardization and greater detail in fabric analysis is of great benefit to the discipline. One element of pottery studies that has always been frustrating is the poor quality of macroscopic fabric descriptions in much of the literature. They tend to relate vague overviews of color, inclusions, and texture. Comparing such descriptions to material under analysis or across different publications often proves disappointing. Efforts to develop standardized descriptions are helping to alleviate this and more and more publication of petrographic data and photographs of fabrics facilitate comparisons between sites and regions. Portable digital microscopes have also been helpful for improving the quality of fabric photographs in publications.

Concern that technology may erode the skills of individuals engaged in pottery analysis is not tenable. Even if pottery specialists do not engage with this technology directly, effective use of these methods prompts pottery specialists to improve their own descriptions and analyses of the material to ensure the best data possible is obtained by use of these techniques. Barring the invention of a Star Trek-like scanner that instantly provides all necessary details about a sherd, no amount of technology will replace the need for trained specialists to examine material by hand in a lab. Thus, the craft of pottery analysis should continue to exist in its present form for at least the near future.

A Field Divided

The use of technology may be beneficial to pottery analysis as a craft, but there are other issues to consider. One topic that appears several times within the article by Shanks and McGuire is the degree of hierarchy present within archaeology (1996: 82, 84). They observe that ‘we divide the practice of archaeology into those of us who manage and sit on committees, synthesize, generalize, and theorize and those of us who sort, dig, and identify’ (1996: 82). Pottery analysis would tend to fall into the latter category. Since the term ‘hierarchy’ has connotations of rank and status, a fact discussed explicitly by Shanks and McGuire, we must consider how this affects our view of pottery analysis as a craft.

At a basic level, there are three primary goals during the analysis of a ceramic assemblage. All relate to types of data that can be extracted from the material: chronology, function, economy. Pottery is the most important tool for dating in both excavation and survey. The make-up of an assemblage provides information about activities carried out at a site or within a specific structure and the origin of this material can shed light on economic patterns. Pottery specialists collect and organize this data. What happens afterward is where issues of hierarchy come into play.

Standard models of publication in Mediterranean archaeology would seem to support Shanks and McGuire’s view of an established hierarchy. In multi-author site reports, analysts present their data, but rarely offer significant synthesis of this material. That synthesis is left for project directors or other scholars who pull together disparate strands of information. Even when site reports involve multiple volumes, with artifact classes presented as separate monographs, pottery specialists often do themselves disservice. A typical pottery volume in Mediterranean archaeology is organized into a contextual introduction that describes the project in question, a detailed catalogue of finds, and a succinct overview of economic implications. It is the final section which reinforces the position of pottery specialists more as identifiers rather than synthesizers. Those final sections tend to range from several paragraphs to several pages and rarely go beyond a superficial treatment of the material. Detailed synthesis is left for other volumes in a series or for other scholars engaged in overarching studies of a region or period. There are a few exceptions (e.g. Peña 1999), but most studies fall into this type.

The analysis of pottery is a craft that requires mastery of a number of different skills. Focus on typology, chronology, function, and provenance, however, can serve as a barrier to moving beyond description into more detailed interpretation. Time constraints are also relevant since it takes a significant amount of time to process the hundreds, if not thousands, of kilograms of pottery produced by many projects. As the ability to obtain permits becomes more difficult across the Mediterranean and with pressure mounting to disseminate results more quickly, limitations on time, and thus on the ability of pottery specialists to interpret the collected data, will only increase.

At the end of their article, Shanks and McGuire argue that archaeologists have an ‘…obligation to take responsibility for what we do and produce’ (1996: 85¬–6). Pottery analysts working in the Greco-Roman world do appear well aware of their purpose within an archaeological project. We produce vital data to complement and augment interpretations developed out of field work and the processing of other materials. The question I am asking here, though, is whether pottery specialists should take on more of the responsibility for interpreting this data. We have the closest connections to this material, engaging with it day after day. Is it not possible for the identifiers to also be synthesizers and vice versa?

The hierarchy and strict division of archaeologists into different specialists has also led to another critique of the discipline. In an article from the late 1990s, Penelope Allison addressed one of the problems inherent in the analysis of material culture by archaeologists. She began with a concise summary of the standard procedure with which artifact analysis is approached by Mediterranean archaeologists:

At present, a common pattern of post-excavation activity is to divide the excavated artefacts into what are now well-established categories. Each category is then assigned to a different “finds specialist” for organisation into a typology which is ultimately published in the excavation report. The categories are largely selected on criteria attributable to the formal or manufacturing characteristics of the artefacts (1997: 77).

Allison’s main critique is that this methodology does not reflect how objects and individuals interacted in antiquity. In other words, separating pottery from glass, bone, architecture, etc. hinders rather than helps us to reconstruct ancient behavior. It was Allison’s own frustrations in reading through countless site and artifact reports during a study of households at Pompeii that led to this appraisal. A related difficulty is the fact that after pottery, most artifact classes are relegated to the category of small finds and given far less rigorous treatment. This pattern has been steadily changing over the past few decades, in no small part thanks to a book published by James Deetz on the importance of small finds in American archaeology (1977), but the disparity is still evident.

For Allison, a more appropriate procedure involves a holistic approach to studying the archaeological record. All material culture, including pottery, should be analyzed and presented together. She advocates the use of database management programs to organize these vast and disparate sets of data, a process which has now become standard practice for many archaeological projects. Scholars interested in domestic architecture have been the primary proponents of Allison’s ideas, following her seminal study of Pompeian households (2004). This includes Brad Ault’s work at Halieis in Greece (2005) and Ben Costello’s recent study of the Earthquake House at Kourion, Cyprus (2014). Most field projects, however, continue to separate their finds and bring in multiple specialists, who are not always present at the same time. 

Allison proposed this alternative to traditional practice in Mediterranean archaeology fifteen years ago, but for pottery analysis there has been little movement to modify its traditional structure. It is a sub-field that has seen its own skill set expand over the past two decades with the greater integration of technology. The accusation of pottery specialists being myopic in studying a single class of artifacts is perhaps tenable, but is myopia a bad thing if it means the ability to extract the maximum amount of information from a ceramic assemblage? Can an individual who spends equal time learning about ancient pottery, glass, bone, metal, wall painting, architecture, etc., be expected to understand ceramic fabrics at a level that is currently expected among pottery specialists? Will becoming a ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’ improve our overall ability to understand the archaeology and history of the ancient world?

These questions are difficult to answer and in many ways require much more discussion and debate among archaeologists. There are palpable benefits to the approach espoused by Allison, but there is also risk that the skills of pottery and other specialists would erode if they were required or expected to become knowledgeable about numerous classes of archaeological material. Allison’s call for use of database management programs may provide the best answer for a compromise. The use of tablets, for instance, allows members of an archaeological project to access a variety of data, often updated in real time, that bring together disparate elements of a project into a more cohesive whole. Pottery specialists can quickly scan the details of an excavated deposit before reading the material. Excavators can assess the chronology of layers already dug to help them understand the stratigraphy of deposits while still in the field. Perhaps breaking down boundaries in Mediterranean archaeology should focus more on sharing information rather than blurring the lines between specialized knowledge. As a craft we have come to rely greatly on our degree of specialization. Other types of finds should be given more robust treatment, but this should not constrain the need for detailed analyses of ceramic assemblages. 


Pottery specialists working in the Mediterranean are achieving a greater degree of professionalization as they develop more standardized protocols and methodologies. There is also a strong element of craft within the field of pottery analysis in Classical Archaeology. These elements are not mutually exclusive and their combination enables ceramic experts to provide robust data for use by other members of their projects. Further development of this craft is possible, particularly with respect to pottery analysts taking on a greater role as synthesizers. Shanks and McGuire note that ‘Craft is productive work for a purpose’ (1996: 78). Pottery analysis in Classical Archaeology adheres to this definition and, in its current manifestation, is successful at justifying its purpose.


Allison, P.M. 1997. ‘Why do Excavation Reports have Finds’ Catalogues?’ In Not So Much a Pot, More a Way of Life: Current Approaches to Artefact Analysis in Archaeology, C.G. Cumberpatch and P.W. Blinkhorn (eds.). Oxford: Oxbow Books 77–84.

Allison, P.M. 2004. Pompeian Households: An Analysis of the Material Culture. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA.

Ault, B.A. 2005. The Excavations of Ancient Halieis, Volume 2. The Houses: The Organization and Use of Domestic Space. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Costello IV, B. 2014. Architecture and Material Culture from the Earthquake House at Kourion, Cyprus (BAR Int. Ser. 2635). Oxford: Archaeopress.

Deetz, J. 1977. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Felts, W.M. 1942. ‘A Petrographic Examination of Potsherds from Ancient Troy’. American Journal of Archaeology 46: 237–44.

Peacock, D.P.S. 1970. ‘The Scientific Analysis of Ancient Ceramics: A Review’. World Archaeology 1: 375–89.

Peacock, D.P.S. 1977. ‘Preface’, in Pottery and Early Commerce: Characterization and Trade in Roman and Later Ceramics, D.P.S. Peacock (ed.). London: Academic Press, vii–viii.

Peacock, D.P.S. and D.F. Williams. 1986. Amphorae and the Roman Economy: An Introductory Guide. London and New York: Longman.

Peña, J.T. 1999. The Urban Economy during the Early Dominate: Pottery Evidence from the Palatine Hill (BAR Int. Ser. 784). Oxford: Archaeopress.

Peterson, S.E. 2009. Thin-Section Petrography of Ceramic Materials. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press.

Shanks, M. and R.H. McGuire. 1996. ‘The Craft of Archaeology’. American Antiquity 61: 75–88.

Shepard, A.O. 1942. Rio Grande Glaze Paint Ware: A Study Illustrating the Place of Ceramic Technological Analysis in Archaeological Research. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

The Most Depressing Dog Park

September 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

I find dog parks relatively depressing. I felt this way even before I got a dog. I know that dogs enjoy space to romp free especially those confined by small backyards, apartments, or dangerous suburban roads. I also like seeing people enjoying time with their dogs. Domesticated dogs have been humans’ companions for millennia and so it is hardly surprising that we set aside space for them in our daily routines.

At the same time, something about dog parks rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s the idea that dogs have come to deserve specific space within our urban fabric. This is a kind of respect that not all humans enjoy.

Maybe it’s the opposite. I find depressing the idea that dogs need to be enclosed in a particular space as an 21st century urban reminder of the tragedy of the commons. Because people can’t be trusted to manage their dogs, they have to be set aside in their own space to protect the whole community from irresponsible dog owners. Being terrified of dogs – even those on a leash and frequently mine – I realize that this is reasonable policy to have (and I wish it were extended to squirrels), but it still is depressing.

IMG 2038

Despite these things, I dutifully take my very excited pooch to the dog park every day. He rampages about blissfully ignorant of the potential ethical pitfalls surrounding (literally) his exuberance.

Our dog park in Grand Forks takes depressing to the next level. It is built on the flood plain of the Red River in an area called Lincoln Park. This park was built on the site of a neighborhood called Lincoln Drive which was inundated by the 1997 Red River Flood. Now the park and site of the neighborhood are on the river side of the flood walls that protect the town.  They put up a historical marker at the center of the park telling the history of the community there. It’s very nice.

IMG 2044

It does little, however, to assuage my guilt over letting my dog run wild over the subtle undulations that are the streets and alleys of a neighborhood. Lines of mature trees remember shaded sidewalks and roads. Isolated trees stand in forgotten yards and the clearly visible depressions settle under the memory of lost homes. It feels like letting my dog run around a battle field and makes me remember the opening of the first book of the Iliad. Serious bummer: 

ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι



The expansion of Grand Forks to the south and the construction of pre-plighted cookie-cutter houses in a ramshackle halo around the traditional urban core (forming upper middle class favela) only makes me feel worse. I recognize, of course, that it would be problematic to rebuild on a floodplain, and it is responsible and even noble to use this space as a community park. It really is beautiful in the early fall. 

At the same time, it all feels so very sad. 


More Pallets, More Pallets!!

September 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

I finally got around to reading Jacob Hodes’ “Whitewood Under Siege” in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Cabinet (primarily because my distracting reading purveyor Kostis Kourelis sent it to me). The article explores the contentious and combative world of the global pallet market. In around 4000 words, it clarified some of my lingering questions about pallets and added another component to my growing interest in pallets in the landscape.

First, the article clarified some of the early history of pallets in the U.S. According to Hodes pallets found their current form by 1925, but did not see widespread use until WWII when the US military ordered millions of pallets to move supplies overseas. That makes a photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Walker Evans Collection particularly interesting. I posted it last winter. The photo dates to 1941 and shows a small “toaster type” RV parked in a Sarasota, Florida. Clearly visible is a line of pallets serving as a deck and another pallet leaning against the trailer’s side. The use of pallets in this way continues into the 21st century, but this 1941 photograph shows that as early as pallets were in use to move bulk goods around the world, they began to be used for secondary purposes.

NewImageAPI Pallets in Grand Forks, ND

The next important thing that I learned from this article is how the pallet ecosystem works. As my regular readers know, I’ve been thinking about how the Late Roman economy functions in light of the massive assemblage of Late Roman amphoras at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria. I have tended to assume that large concentrations of similar containers represents the administrative and economic power of the state, largely because small scale exchange practices and producers have tended to be dynamic and contingent and to leave a less less visible signature in the landscape. The repair, manufacture, recycling, and redistribution of traditional wooden pallets is an open ecosystem with numerous small-scale participants facilitating the circulation of pallets around the world (with some notable exceptions like the Australian company CHEP who has demonstrated a willingness to go to war to protect its “closed pool” practices of pallet circulation).  So, if I owned a company in Grand Forks, ND, I’d go to my local pallet company – API Pallets of Grand Forks – to procure pallets to ship my goods. API also, I assume, purchases pallets from companies at a fixed price (typically less than $10 per pallet) or individual recyclers. They then repair or recondition the pallets and sell them back to the market. Pallets that cannot be repaired are recycled almost entirely (at least by API); the wood becomes mulch and the nails are recycled. What is fascinating to me is that this entire system functions in a decentralized way (unlike the CHEP closed pool) with each community having a depot for pallets that ensure their repair and recirculation. 

Of course such a decentralized system can only function if there are significant pressures present to ensure the maintenance of standards. Pallets have to fit inside trucks, on airplanes, into rail cars.  They have to be close to the same strength so that they can be stacked with goods and treated in a similar way. Even allowing for some significant variation, wood pallets are standardized, despite being produced on a small scale around the world, through the combined pressures of regularized shipping practices and a trade association (note for example how many pallet companies have the similar “Pallets 101” page on their websites). This standardization, of course, came about in part because of the needs of the US military to supply troops deployed globally.

This got me thinking about the manufacturing of standardized amphora shapes, like Late Roman 1 amphoras. By all accounts, the production of these amphoras occurred at various sites on Cyprus and Cilicia. Their standard shape and sized functioned to facilitate the movement of supplies through a particular region. The organization of these producers and suppliers was decentralized and the only pressure to standardize came through the practices associated with moving goods. This is not a novel observation, but I suspect that Andrew Bevan would have found this parallel useful in his recent article on containerization.

One last observation, I did some quick web searching and noticed that Williston does not seem to have a center for the recycling, repair, and redistribution of pallets. There may be one in Minot and Dickinson, and there certainly is one in Bismarck. As with so many things in North Dakota, these core services and infrastructure tend to be clustered in the Red River Valley (for now) and particularly in places like West Fargo which serves as a region redistribution hub for much of the area. 

I think a field trip over to API Pallets is in order soon in support of the Pallet Project. Until then, more pallets, more pallets!

Auctioning Atari: Archaeology, Ethics, and Contemporary Practice

September 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

This week my social media inbox has filled with news on two auctions. The first auction involves the “Treasure of Harageh” being auctioned at Bonhams for the Archaeological Institute of America’s St. Louis chapter. Auctioning antiquities is, needless to say, an issue of concern for both the national body of the Archaeological Institute of America and archaeologists everywhere.  The AIA seems to have been caught off guard about this and we can hope, formulating a response. Many archaeologists are dismayed and disappointed.  

At the same time, I’ve been receiving daily updates on the impending auction of Atari games excavated this past spring from the Alamogordo landfill. As readers of this blog know, I was involved as an observer and consultant (in the broadest sense of the word) on these excavation which were funded and seemingly directed as part of a documentary film. The excavated games are property of the City of Alamogordo and it had been their intention from the start to sell some of the 1200 games excavated from the landfill to defray the costs associated with hosting the documentary crew and opening a long-closed landfill. The auction of priceless Egyptian antiquities has caused more alarm than the auctioning of some Atari games. Perhaps it is because the city of Alamogordo has pledged 400 games or so to museums. While we were onsite we set aside an assemblage of important artifacts for the city under the guidance of video game expert Raiford Guins and marked them as potential museum worthy artifacts. 


These two events bring to the fore issues of archaeological ethics. I’ve generally considered ethical debates in archaeology, at their best, a kind of benign parlor game. The big picture of bad things to do and good things to do is pretty well much familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the discipline. It is not good for a group associated with the Archaeological Institute of America to be auctioning off antiquities. That much is clear. The grey area around the fringes, however, where serious ethical work needs to happen, tends to realm of bombast and handwringing. For example, it is bad that large parts of Syria’s archaeological heritage is under threat, but it is far worse that over 50% of the country’s population is now refugees. Complaining about the former is fine from a professional standpoint, as long as it never threatens to drown out the latter. Or worse, in our rush to decry the evils of looting, we somehow blame the victims of this country’s horrible civil war. It’s fine to criticize Indian Jones as a bad archaeologist because he obviously ran-roughshod over the German excavation permit in Egypt, but we shouldn’t forget that he did so in order to save the world from evils of Nazi domination. I was not comfortable with the decision to deny Dr. Jones tenure, in part, on the basis of his ethical decision making, and I recognize that pressures to forfeit his finds to “top men” made it very difficult for him to publish promptly.

Fortunately, the auctioning of Atari games relates neither to the massive displacement of innocent civilians or global domination by a genocidal fascist regime. It does, however, dance, albeit more merrily, along the borders of archaeological ethics. Over the last week, I’ve made a list of things that concern me about the the auctioning of Atari games by the city of Alamogordo. 

1. Archaeology of the Contemporary World. Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in archaeology of the contemporary world. This sub-discipline has focused on applying archaeological methods to contemporary contexts. As a result, we have expanded the definition of archaeological artifact to the point where it exceeds any legally recognized status in the world. Atari games buried in the 1980s are now archaeological artifacts not because of their age, but because of the systematic scrutiny that defined their contemporary context. If publishing an artifact without proper archaeological provenience or an object for sale runs the risk of using our disciplinary knowledge to imparting value in the antiquities market, then the presence of archaeologists at the Atari dig and our documentation of those finds serves a similar purpose for the upcoming auction. This is something that I’ve worried about a good bit. Whether we like it or not, the academic publication of objects and object types affects their value, contributes to their desirability, and fuels the market. An Atari game is pretty mundane and common, but they are limited commodities just like Roman lamps, amphoras, and black figure vases. By participating in the excavation of objects that will go to auction, we have used our disciplinary knowledge to stimulate and expand the market for a finite resource.

2. Archaeology and Corporate World. Hardly a month goes by without some country demanding the repatriation on an artifact legally or illegally removed from its territory or the territory of some predecessor state. In my reading of the ethical issues surrounding these disputes, archaeologists are generally less interested in the specific legal arguments related to the rights of a particular nation state, and more interested in the role that objects play in the preserving evidence for the past at a particular site or in a  particular context. In other words, it is the cultural situation of objects proximate to their place of discovery that fuels archaeological calls for repatriation. As for the countries calling for repatriation, I get the sense that the calls remains a post-colonial “weapon of the weak” that seeks to redress wrongs conducted and perpetuated by colonialist powers. The archaeologist, in many cases, is a representative of these colonialist powers, and our willingness to sanction the sometimes arbitrary demands of states calling for repatriation relates as much to guilt over past asymmetries of power as a genuine belief that objects deserve to be in a particular place or context.

The excavation and auction of Atari games represents an interesting case study in that the context for the games – a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico – was mediated by a series of corporate contexts that include the original production of the games by Atari, their shipment to New Mexico, and their burial at a private landfill. More than that, the excavation was funded, at least in large part, by Microsoft, and the most interested parties had histories and contacts with all these companies. While Atari as a company barely exists, it did make me wonder whether in the near future, as companies rapidly displace nation states as both global legal powers and sources of culture and identity, then will they have a genuine claim as custodians of our collective past?

3. Data and Objects. It is heartening to know that many of the excavated games will find their way to museum collections. It is a bit odd, however, that no one has asked us for a formal report on the excavations. In other words, the excavated status of these objects and their archaeological context is assumed. This got me thinking about the relationship between finds and data in general. Every summer, when I depart the Mediterranean, I leave behind a dusty storeroom full of pot sherds with a hard drive full of images, descriptions, and descriptions of context. We do our best to make sure that the local archaeological authorities have copies of both our data and any analysis that we conducted. It made me realize, however, that the objects as objects have very little value to my work once we’ve squeezed the necessary information from the artifacts and stored them safely away. 

The rise of New Archaeology and the shift from an art historical fetishization of the artifact to data driven analysis has slowly eroded the value of the artifact itself and shifted the significance to the methods used in analysis. I got to wondering whether this perpetuated colonial practices where archaeologists arrive in a place, take what they need (in this case data rather than objects), and leave the desiccated remains behind for the host country to curate. As the film company and the hardy team of archaeologists left New Mexico with the footage and data that they wanted, the town of Alamogordo was left with a assemblage of artifacts.

While it doesn’t make me happy to know that the city will auction these excavated artifacts, I wonder whether this archaeological grey areas will continue to grow as our definition of the past and the discipline of archaeology changes.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

September 12, 2014 § 1 Comment

It is SHOCKING that today is Friday. When not a sabbatiquol Fridays seemed like mythical days, infinitely far in the future, and never really arriving (until it was too late and it was Sunday evening and you realized that you somehow missed both Friday and Saturday). Now Fridays arrive with alarming regularity.

And it’s winter here officially. I did miss the 72 hours of fall last week sometime, but it’s 36 this morning and the temperatures are falling. 

So I’ll do what I’ve done on winter Fridays: I’ll urge you all to curl up by the fire with a lovely warm beverage and read some Friday Varia and Quick hits. 


Craft in Archaeology: Is Digital Archaeology Craft?

September 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

 This is the first installment in a series of blog posts focusing on craft in archaeology. Here’s a link to the call for submissions. The posts will explore craft in archaeology from the perspective of field practices, analytical and interpretative frameworks, and social impacts on the discipline. The posts will appear every Thursday for as long as we get contributions and compiled into a e-book by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Shawn Graham, The Electric Archaeologist
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Carleton University

What is digital archaeology? Is it craft?


In “Going Postal“, the Royal Mail is kaput. A critical mass of letters warp space and time, and this being Discworld, magic too, affecting events as they try to effect their own delivery. Knowledge = power = energy = mass, Pratchett tells us in the context of the Library (another concentration of magical words). Words – data – have curious power in the Discworld. Golems, creatures of clay, obey the words in their heads, enslaving them. When in “Feet of Clay“, someone puts the receipt for the purchase of a golem into that golem’s head, the golem is set free. Pratchett of course is not known as a philosopher of science or of epistemology, but the illustrations are useful as we think about the consequences of our own tombs of dead words and self aware word-based robot slaves. Ultimately, when you have these things, you are not as in control as you would like. All things strive. The craft of digital archaeology is about this tension. Our digital methods in archaeology in the field record and organize the contingencies, serendipitous encounters, chance observations, joys and sorrows such that we can excise all that is human from our story about the past.


Slabs like the squared off clots Of a blue cream. Sunk for centuries under grass [Seamus Heany, Door into the Dark 1969] Until I found Bann clay. Like wet daylight or viscous satin under the felt and frieze Of humus layers. The true diatomite Discovered in a little sucky hole, Grey-blue, dull-shining, scentless, touchable – Like the earth’s old ointment box, sticky and cool. [Seamus Heany, To a Dutch Potter in Ireland, 1996]

becomes this:

Very compact, Blue-ish grey to white, 10YR/8/1, pliable, clay 90% silt 10%, 35-17 cm, probably natural.

(originally quoted on Electric Archaeology in a post on 2007/12/10 What do we do then? We might then put that “data” on the web, where nothing much else happens subsequently. From graves to tombs of words. There is no craft here (witchcraft, practical necromancy, or other). There are only our golems, standing quietly by, awaiting further orders.


There is a genre of after-action reporting in video gaming called the ‘playthrough’. A subgenre of this is the ‘speedrun‘, a video of a player beating a game in the fastest time possible, by finding the equivalent of a least-cost path through the branches of possible experiences afforded by the game. Speedrunners are not craftsmen, but analog algorithms optimized for a particular path. Excavation is theatre, Tilley tells us. I’d argue that it’s more akin to a game. The site report is but one path through the excavation. If the excavation in potentia could play out in many possible ways, the site report is the expert playthrough. And like most playthroughs it is lifeless. Contingency and chance and serenditpity and insight are excised. The playthrough is not the game. It is but one path (an efficient path) through our tomb of dead words. Other paths might produce other, equally enlightening truths; possibly more enlightening ones. This is not Discworld; our texts do not warp space and time except in only figurative ways (although consider a citation network). Our golems are not yet set free. But. The day is coming. We are beginning to use our knowledge of the structures and relationships and semantic meanings in our data to structure the internet itself: to traverse these linkages is to perform the structure of knowledge. Archaeological data is not on the web, but is of the web. We have also started to create sentient word-driven creatures to do our bidding, without us necessarily telling them how or what to find. These unsupervised learning algorithms hold much promise for us as archaeologists. Both of these ideas, of linked open data and the use of unsupervised learningalgorithmns are premised on a kind of idea-space. Linked Open Data links data that is semantically related, that has meaning, thus are ‘closer’ in some sense. The links themselves express something about how the knowledge was produced and what it represents. It’s not a network, but a meshwork in an Ingoldian sense. Not a landscape, but a taskscape. Natural language unsupervised learning looks for patterns in these taskscapes – language does work; it is built out of the careful juxtaposition and grammatical linkages of words and ideas – making decisions about what goes with what. Thus there is no reason why alternative playthroughs could be generated and examined. We could tune our golem to emphasize the patterns containing these elements or relationships rather than those ones. In short, digital archaeology is not the use of digital information management tools in the field. Rather, it is the careful crafting and contemplation of algorithmic representations of the past. One could call this “visualization”, if visualization means ‘to communicate meaning’ (and see the tremendous work done at the recent HeritageJam in this regard). However, it is the step before communication that I am most interested in here: data mining. Topic modeling for instance carries no rule-book for deciding how many topics to generate, or which of the many signals created by the algorithm to pay most attention to. Indeed, what topic models produce are meshworks woven through the dead words of the corpus, all the dead cells, loci, contexts and other echoes of the excavation, and through these paths different voices can be heard again. What voice? Not the voice of the past, certainly. Here is the excavation at Prescott Street. In these models of meshworks I can clearly see the “official” interpretation of the site. But I can see other voices too. I can even put names to them:


Figure 1: refuse pr greg crees pit rubbish kind determine paula representing previously rounded bs discovered full gradual probing based enclosing struck


Figure 2: pit david unspecified ross edge roman brenna lowest shallow expect final basal presume dimensions marcus pebbles angular appeared covering diffuse

Greg and David record aspects of the excavation that are, for the most part, unique to and uniquely expressed by, them. We won’t find that in the official report, though. Understanding the output of data mining requires craft. Were it art presumably my interpretation would be unique from yours; both might reveal great truths, but they’d hardly be reproducible or of the level of ‘great’ art that transcends time and place. Science? Were it science then I could give you the method and workflow and you’d be able to exactly replicate what I have done. There would be one and one result only. No, there is randomness and probability involved in data mining, natural language processing, and unsupervised learning. Just as there is randomness and probability involved in excavation, in site formation processes, in the stigmergy of humans in a given culture interacting with each other and with their environment. What we are dealing with is craft in the same way every shaker chair is unique yet recognizably of a type, working with the grain of its materials and all of the improbabilities that came to bear on this one knot in space and time. Craft involves tacit knowledge and induction into secrets. Rob Nelson revealed to me the secrets of getting MALLET to work. It took me several months to figure it all out. In digital work though the bar is always moving. What was once hard becomes easier- Ian Milligan, Scott Weingart and I pulled back the curtain and revealed to all of us poor humanists how to make it work. And yet, even as we write morehandbooks to digital craft (‘hand book’ – hand – digits – digital) we find that what works on my machine does not work on Ian’s. Why? Craft again. Our digital workshops are responsive to the tasks (data) we most often do. Retooling reveals the tacit embodied knowledges we didn’t even see. Craft is alive and well in digital archaeology.

Recognizing/validating/extracting/creating (surely the Germans have an appropriate compound verb) all the meshwork of paths/playthroughs latent in this digital soil, is craft. Craft means that there will be masters, guilds, secrets, and initiations. It can’t be avoided when there is tacit knowledge involved. I leave to the reader to decide whether or not this is desirable. I do know that digital archaeology, as I conceive it, is every bit as ‘slow’, as ‘punk’, as other archaeologies. There are other issues at stake. Chris Godsen asked, ‘What do objects want?’ My digital golems: I did not create them. Who knows their wants and desires? Digital archaeology, more than perhaps other kinds of archaeology, shares authority in the co-creation of archaeological knowledge with quasi-independent algorithms. There is literally something unhuman about knowledge created/uncovered this way. Stephen Ramsay once said, ‘algorithms are thoughts; chainsaws are tools‘. The tacit knowledge, the unspoken bits about working with these digital golems, these thoughts-encoded: that’s the part of the craft that needs the most work right now.


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