Punk Archaeology Recap and Reflections

February 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

Thanks to the efforts of my buddy Aaron Barth, the enthusiasm of the presenters and musicians, and the encouragement of all the folks behind the scenes, punk archaeology was a remarkable success. There were moments of standing room only crowd (which may have been because Andrew Reinhard rocked so hard that people moved aside to give him room). The conversation was lively and thought provoking. The audience was eclectic and electric.  

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1. Performance. Punk archaeology was clearly performed on Saturday night. Between the music, the dramatic presentation of ideas, and the venue, punk archaeology was loud, intense, and strident. The words and the music made it pretty clear that these were ideas, but ideas turned up to 11. Speakers were announced by bull horn, stood on a stage without a podium, and talked through a P.A. system set up for bands. The informal venue and adult beverages distracted the audience and required the speakers to go out and grab the attention that the audience did not offer. Peter Schultz yelled “GOO”, Andrew Reinhard declaimed, Richard Rothaus read from graph paper, Kostis Kourelis wore a black tie and black suit. The performance of the Stooges’ “I Wanna be Your Dog” almost blew my mind and was far-and-away the best cover of that song ever at a North Dakota Humanities Council event or (and I’m going out on the limb here) any academic conference ever. 

2. Personal. The talks were deeply personal. Some, like Richard Rothaus’s, Josh Samuel’s and mine, described events encountered over the course of research, others, like Kris Groberg and Andrew Reinhard, talked about their discovery of punk in personal terms. Colleen Morgan’s paper – posted on her blog – likewise, captured the personal tone of our conversations well. Of course, it should be no surprise that any academic pursuit has a personal element, but we so often suppress that as we follow profession conventions shaped by expectations of a detached objectivity even as our disciplines have embraced “subjective” (for lack of a better word) modes of thinking for close to a century. 

3. Embracing Ambiguity. To my mind, the greatest intellectual contribution was the critique of certitude in archaeological work. Almost all the participants talked about the how punk rock defied the limited typologies that archaeologists often admit as a way to organize archaeological knowledge. Of course, these typologies often extend to include the ethical landscapes that shape anthropological and archaeological practices. Peter Schultz called the ambiguity of archaeological practice “goo”; I referenced the disorganized suburban garage. Richard Rothaus and Josh Samuels considered the moral and ethical ambiguity of being a disinterested observer of archaeological and anthropological practices. The spirit of punk allows for the ambiguity and randomness of live performance.

4. Innovative. Punk may still be cutting edge and in the conservative world of academic archaeology. The spirit of most papers was that we can still learn from punk and push archaeological work in new directions. This could mean as Kostis Kourelis suggested, the careful study of a punk venue, or as other suggested, the embrace of punk principles to transform archaeological practice and publication.

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There were, of course, some issues:

1. Definitions of Punk. Kostis Kourelis and I enjoyed What Kingswood Needs, but we realized that their point of reference was Green Day rather than, say, The Heartbreakers or Hüsker Dü. The continued transformation of the punk genre destabilized our reference to punk archaeology in a substantial way. This was cool (see ambiguity above), but it did make me stop and think about the range of meanings present in our use of the modifier punk. The rather polished sound (and slightly vapid lyrics) of pop punk bands like Green Day probably  

2. Gender. We only had one punk archaeologist woman at the gathering. While some of this has to do with Colleen Morgan being in either Doha or Merrie England, it nevertheless is an interesting trend (that did not go unobserved!). Some of this might be understandable as punk rock almost certainly trends toward men, but if we want to suggest that punk archaeology has universal significance, then we need to broaden the movement to include more women.

3. Meaning. Most significantly, we need to determine whether punk archaeology MEANS anything. It was fun, there was good discussion, but now the question is: what next? If this was just an opportunity to hang out with old and new friends, enjoy some music, and hear a range of interesting reflections on archaeology, then that is well and good. But, it still remains to be seen whether the global punk archaeology movement will create knowledge that will change how we think about what we do.

One of my favorite chats of the evening was with June Panic who discussed the process of recording an album in a studio. He remarked that the recording an album involved almost continuous compromise and the end result was never exactly how you envisioned it. He stressed the idea that you can’t ever control all the variables in the recording process, and I feel like we did a good job letting the evening and the event run its own course and produce its own meaning.

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There’ll be some better pictures and some audio for the event coming soon! So stay tuned!

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§ One Response to Punk Archaeology Recap and Reflections

  • Awesome.

    “This could mean … the embrace of punk principles to transform archaeological practice and publication.” That is what I thought this was all about from the start. It sounds like an idea with promise.

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