Three Thoughts on the ASOR Annual Meeting

November 24, 2014 § 4 Comments

I spent two, busy days at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting last week. It was great to catch up with old friends and spend some time surveying both recent trends in our field and the state of academic conference. 

1. Ban Archaeological Site Reports as Conference Papers. I enjoyed most of the papers that I heard last week and invariably learned something from even the most tedious. This is a good thing. At the same time, I got antsy and irritated during archaeological site reports that detailed the results of every trench at a site over the previous one or two field seasons. The level of detail offered in many of these papers made the work difficult to visualize. The absence of clear general research questions (e.g. what are the influences on the development of Cypriot cult in the late Iron Age?) and the preponderance of hyper-specific research questions (e.g. does the north wall continue west?). These questions are interesting, perhaps, from an archaeological perspective, but this rarely translates to an interesting paper.

I recognize, of course, that there is a tradition of these kinds of site reports in archaeology, so I’m not blaming the authors. I also realize that these reports can provide useful updates to the scholarly community, former volunteers and collaborators, and specialists interested in these sites. Moreover, I get that with funding to attend conferences become more competitive, many scholars feel pushed to give papers of dubious academic value just to get funding to attend. 

At the same time, I am pretty sure ASOR could publish academic site reports online, perhaps behind a firewall if project’s are concerned about the safety of their sites, and eliminate what is far and away the least intellectually rewarding part of the conference while still providing a venue for the dissemination of detailed information. This would allow conference organizers to present a more focused conference with more substantial papers over a shorter period of time. It does not, of course, resolve the issue of scholars who present less than remarkable papers simply to get funding to attend.  

2. The Digital Divides. I am becoming more and more alarmed by the divide in archaeology between the digital haves and have nots. As research funding contracts and expenses of fieldwork continue to increase, the presentations documenting significant digital innovation came almost entirely from large, well-funded projects with the backing of large research universities. I recognize that innovation requires funding and that many aspects of this work will “trickle down” into digital tools and technologies available to smaller, more financially ordinary projects, but there was little discussion of how this process will take place or what smaller, less generously funded projects can do to participate in the process of digital innovation (or little discussion that I saw at the panels that I attended).

The digital divide bothered me because so many of the coolest digital projects seemed far from being sufficiently scalable to have a widespread impact on the field. Moreover, some of the data driven digital initiative seem to require the widespread adoption of their complex platforms to assemble the kind of data required to allow for archaeological “big data” initiatives. The truth behind big data in archaeology, however, is that it derives not from technological innovation alone, but through the combination of technology and social networks (of the human kind) to generate the kind of collaboration necessary to produce significant change in the discipline. 

The digital divide, then, marks not just the digital “haves” and digital “have nots,” but an approach to digital archaeology that continues to privilege innovation over application. As an archaeologist open to digital tools and techniques, I am far more interested in understanding how innovators can provide access to digital tools and support the meaningful adoption of technology to produce significant bodies of data. In other words, I was impressed by the highest of high tech (e.g. virtual archaeology in immersive 3D environments, dynamic bespoke platforms supporting large-scale collaboration between interrelated projects, and sharks with laser beams who could destroy even the most aggressive archaeocyberpirates), I was much hungrier for digital initiative that had significant adoption rates or that produced meaningful results across multiple projects of different scales and resources. It seems to me that the future of digital archaeology is in collaboration and adoption more than innovation. 

3. Conferences as Non-Places. Upon returning home, I was shocked to discover that the conference had been in San Diego. The Westin Hotel was fine. The weather was nice from what I could gather from outside the hotel and taxi cab windows (I did notice the absence of blowing snow and sub-zero temperatures). 

I recognize that part of this was my fault. I could have planned more time for excursions or at least took a cab to a good local restaurant rather than settling for rather ordinary fare available near the conference hotel. At the same time, I felt significant pressure to use my time wisely, attend as many sessions as possible, and be punctual and engaged at various meetings. By my early morning departure, I realized that the location of the conference was almost completely irrelevant.

The commercial carpeting, Starbucks’ coffee, institutional pastries, familiar hotel rooms, and polite staff all made the experience of attending this conference nearly indistinguishable from any other, and made me all the happier to get home. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

November 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m still hanging out at the American School of Oriental Research annual meeting in sunny and warm San Diego. Unlike some years, I’ve been able to enjoy a full slate of panels. Yesterday the panel on Maritime Archaeology and Object Biography were particularly thought provoking, and today it looks like I could spend about 6 or 7 hours in panels devoted to the archaeology of Cyprus.

So with the travel and conferencing by quick hits and varia will look a bit thin, but I figure I do owe my readers something!

IMG 2345

An Unsatisfying Final Chapter to the Tourist Guide of the Bakken

November 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

As I pushed publish on the final chapter to the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch, I fretted over two things. First, I lying in bed at the San Diego Westin Hotel on the first fill day of the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. I should really be blogging about something Cypriot or at least something non-North America. So, I’m promising myself after I post this, I’ll get into the proper mood and go forth to enjoy the conference.

Next, I’m profoundly unsatisfied with how this chapter turned out. After a quick trip through the Bakken last week, I noticed that this chapter does not fairly represent the distances between sites (for example Keene and Johnson’s Corner). It does not take into account the newly opened (and spectacular) Watford City bypass. And it overlooks truly massive gravel pits along ND Route 23.

P1090295

So why did I hit publish? Well, part of it is because I wanted to make sure that I followed through a presented the entire draft. I’m going to revise this anyway, so an unsatisfactory version of the manuscript online is tolerable to me. More importantly, however, I enjoyed thinking about how the invisible infrastructure of the Bakken works. The drive east on ND Route 23 from Watford City does not necessarily reveal the complex networks of pipelines that will gradually add to the industrial activity in this area. The occluded nature of certain aspects of the oil boom ranging from pipelines and gravel pits to crime, danger, and social disruption and trace a dark shadow across the Bakken. For the tourist, signs of these systems and problems will be always be obscure, but the routes on the tourist guide hopefully make a few of them more visible.

P1090290

The next step is to prepare a thorough revision of the guide for proper publication. At the same time, we will work on the revision of a paper for the journal Historical Archaeology which will represent the first scholarly publication of our work. 

I. Introduction

I.1. A Brief Industrial History of the Bakken Counties
I.2. Practical Notes on Travel, Roads, and Weather in the Bakken
I.3. Technical Notes and Key Terms about the Bakken
I.4. Controversies and Concerns
I.5. The North Dakota Man Camp Project
I.6. Further Reading

II. Route 1: Minot to Ross
II1. Route 1a: Ross to White Earth

III. Route 2: Ross to Tioga

IV: Route 3: Tioga to Williston
IV.1. Route 3a: Wheelock, Nession Flats, East Williston
IV.2. Route 3b: Wildrose

V: Route 4: Williston to Watford City

VI: Route 5: Williston to Sidney, MT

VII: Route 6: Watford City to New Town

VIII. Conclusions: Industrial Tourism and Some Theoretical Reflections

So stay tuned for more Bakkentastic posts here at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. Now, I have to shift gears and think a bit about Cyprus and the ancient Near East! 

Three New Novels

November 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

The State Board of Higher Education, emboldened by the failure of North Dakota Ballot Measure 3, issued a proclamation that no faculty members outside of the English, language or literature programs can read novels, and people in those programs can only read novels directed toward (1) research, (2) classroom activities, or (3) other professional development. Ostensibly, this policy stems from the “pernicious advance of modernism in our universities, communities, and state” but many faculty think it is simply designed to focus our attention on academic pursuits.

Needless to say, this new policy will crimp my summer reading list which I sometimes pepper with so-called “fiction.” It will also make long intercontinental and cross-country flights less pleasant. Since it does not come into effect until January 1 and I had a few flights over the last month or so, I decided to take advantage of my last remaining months of free reading.

Here are three novels:

1. William Gibson, The Peripheral (2014). The novel is set in the both the near future (say 20 years from now) and the slightly more distant future (say 100 years from now) and starts with a description of an 1970s Airstream RV winterized with some kind of spray foam. The setting for much of the action in the more distant future is a tricked out Mercedes RV designed for long range trekking across the Gobi desert. The plot is fast-paced, baffling, and interesting enough, but the real power of Gibson’s books comes from his sensitivity toward future trends ranging from the rise of the internet to virtual reality. Anyone who does not see a future where we live in mobile housing has not been reading my blog very carefully. 

2. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014). VenderMeer’s novels present a darker, even more distopian vision of the near future. The trilogy of Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance focus on a group of bureaucrats, scientists, and intelligence officials who the vaguely articulated “Central” has tasked with studying a mysterious Area X which suddenly appeared along a stretch of the Forgotten Coast. When the phenomenon that created Area X occurred, the sparse population of this stretch of coastline vanished and a barrier arose between the area and its surroundings. Southern Reach is the government agency investigating Area X, and while the descriptions of the mysterious area tend toward the etherial, they are unmistakably archaeological in character. The desolate beauty of abandonment permeates the novel and provides VenderMeer with an appropriate backdrop to explore the alienating effects of modern society. 

3 Julia Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014). This lovely, short novel explores a year in the life of Prof. Jason Fitger through his letters of recommendation. It chronicles his relationships with his ex-wife and ex-girl friend, his desperate efforts on behalf of a once promising friend and a student whose funding is cut by an increasingly rapacious administration, and his various letters to support students looking for work. The letter themselves range from the pathetic, to the charming, hilarious, and all-to-real, but they all embody the tension between Fitger as the devoted egoist and as the dedicated mentor, colleague, and friend. His letters become opportunities to reflect on his own situation in life as well as those of the students and colleagues who he recommends. The situations will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has spent time in academia: the grass is always greener (in another department), the plight of the overlooked genius, the anxiety surrounding creative and scholarly production, and the alternation between naivety and suspicion.

One more set of flights starting this afternoon and then I’ll be home for the holidays. I don’t have any more novels to read, so I’ll have to do work. Hopefully spending some time with creative folks like Gibson, VanderMeer, and Schumacher rubs off and makes me work better. Isn’t that the promise of modernity? 

Myth of Origins in the Bakken

November 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am once again in the Bakken, but this time on business with my wife rather than on my own research adventures. That being said, I did have a chance to visit a few sites that had eluded me including the monument marking the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well which initiated the Bakken boom in 1951 and the rather more obscure site of Temple where sweet North Dakota crude was first transported by rail to markets back east.

P1090293

P1090304

This got me thinking about the myths of origins in the Bakken. The name of the play derives from the Henry O. Bakken #1 spudded in July 1951 and completed less than a year later in April of 1952. The Iverson #1 was, of course, earlier, but Mr. Bakken’s name graces the famous North Dakota oil play.

Some trace the origins of the most recent, fracking inspired oil boom to work in the Elm Coulie oil field in eastern Montana where horizontal drilling and fracking demonstrated the potential of these techniques as early as 2000, almost a decade before the current boom was touched off by a horizontal fractured well west of Williston.

I talk a good bit about the various origin stories in my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch and this morning published Route 5: Williston, ND to Sidney, MT which looks west for the origins of the most recent boom.

I. Introduction

I.1. A Brief Industrial History of the Bakken Counties
I.2. Practical Notes on Travel, Roads, and Weather in the Bakken
I.3. Technical Notes and Key Terms about the Bakken
I.4. Controversies and Concerns
I.5. The North Dakota Man Camp Project
I.6. Further Reading

II. Route 1: Minot to Ross
II1. Route 1a: Ross to White Earth

III. Route 2: Ross to Tioga

IV: Route 3: Tioga to Williston
IV.1. Route 3a: Wheelock, Nession Flats, East Williston
IV.2. Route 3b: Wildrose

V: Route 4: Williston to Watford City

VI: Route 5: Williston to Sidney, MT

VII: Route 6: Watford City to New Town

VIII. Conclusions: Industrial Tourism and Some Theoretical Reflections

P1090294As the kids would say #nofilter

 

Objects, History, Conflict: Cyprus, Atari, The Bakken

November 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

This has been a hectic week, but I did have the chance to get a little bit of reading done. I particularly enjoyed Rebecca Bryant’s recent article in American Ethnologist 41 (2014), 681-697 titled “History’s Remainders: On Time and Objects After Conflict on Cyprus.” 

The article looks at objects looted, left behind, and sometimes returned after the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots in the 1960s and 1970s. The displacement of families from their homes on both sides and the occupation of new homes whose residents were displaced created a series of object biographies that traced the outlines of the conflict itself. Necessity often compelled Cypriots to loot commodities from the homes of their displaced neighbors during lulls and in the aftermath of the conflict. These objects represented the spoils of the conflict and rarely had lasting emotional value. These Bryant refers to as “remainders” whose everyday – mundane – existence communicated an uncanny quality for both the current and past residents of Cypriot homes. Their familiar, yet ambiguous and displaced existence, evoked a disturbed sense of home and belonging (from the belongings).

Bryant called “remains” objects that had clear and intimate connections to the home’s previous owner, and these objects tended to have less ambiguity and be treated with greater respect. Bryant describes photographs, dowry chests, and wedding gowns that evoked the shared humanity of both the resident and displaced “other”. In some cases, these objects were destroyed by the new residents who made efforts to suppress the humanity of their displaced adversaries. In other cases, these objects were preserved or even returned their displaced owners as a gesture of shared humanities.

Both remains and remainders carry with them the burden of history and objects often represent conflict both in a tremendously immediate way and through their complex associations with past events. This emphasizes the temporal character of these objects and their potential both to create a sense of belonging in history and to generate anxiety about an uncertain future. 

At the same time that I was digesting this complex and compelling article, I was following the auction of the games from the Atari landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Without trivializing the history of objects and experiences of people on Cyprus, these games also emerged through a moment of conflict and continue to carry the ambiguous potential of an uncertain future. For some, these games represent the folly of our hyperactive media cycle which can impart value almost instantly and withdraw it almost as quickly. They also invoke the tumultuous history of the gaming industry in the early 1980s. The history of these games, then, rests at the intersection contemporary media culture and the fragile economy of the early 1980s.

Today, I’m heading out to the Bakken oil patch one more time with an updated draft of my Tourist Guide in hand. I’ve been thinking a good bit with Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist (1976). He argues that one of the goals of tourism is to unify the fragmented world of modernity and the subvert the alienation so characteristic of the modern world. This is particularly the case of tourism focused on industrial sites, factories, and the like. The position of the tourist, above and outside of the fragmented experience of industrial labor, allows them to understand the universe of work and the production of objects as all part of the same experience. Rebecca Bryant regarded objects as uncanny owing their ambiguous relationship with time. Tourism must produce a similarly uncanny encounter with the world as the tourist stands outside of the fragmented temporal rhythms of everyday industrial life, but nevertheless still in contact with this experience and its products.

The temporal displacement encountered through tourism and through objects associated with conflicts, the fickle whims of the media, and booms (like the Bakken) makes for a good topic for reflection recently as I spent time in various timezones and observe the world from and increasingly distant and detached perspective. Strolling through airports, truck stops, or streaming by outside a car window has given me pause to consider whether the “unified” world view has any more relationship to our lived experiences than some cheaply made “souvenir”  from an airport gift shop.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

November 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m still in snowy Boulder enjoying warm hospitality despite the low temperatures. I am always impressed by mountains, even if people tell me that they’re just really nice hills.

IMG 2300

My hectic week has impinged a bit on quantity of varia at my disposal, but I still mustered a nice little list, I think, to keep my loyal readers entertained over the weekend:

IMG 2298

IMG 4622Blanket and Elephant 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 402 other followers

%d bloggers like this: