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.

Western Argolid Regional Project T-Shirts

July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Every real archaeology project needs a t-shirt for every field season. Experienced archaeologists collect these shirts as a living symbols of their archaeological prowess. (And I mean living literally. After a few days or weeks in the field archaeology t-shirts come to support a thriving ecosystem of bacteria, funguses, and tiny insects).

On WARP we invited our students to contribute suggestion for the shirts. All of the contributions were good, but two were the best. 

The front of the shirt shows a field walker in profile holding a compass in his or her left hand. The rakish hat and backpack add a bit of style to the figure. The text says Western Argolid Regional Project 2014.

IMG 1785

The back of the shirt, designed by a different student, shows the great Larissa fortress that overlooks the Argive plain. Beneath it roll the six cars transporting the eager field teams through the dawn light to their assigned tasks. 

IMG 1784

We think they’re pretty nice!

Features and Forms Again

July 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

I probably have one more day in the field this season on the Western Argolid Regional Project. Over the last 6 weeks, we’ve surveyed close to 2500 units and recorded important data for each unit on paper maps and paper forms. We then keyed this data into a database and plotted our maps on a GIS to produce density maps. Our ceramicists, Scott Gallimore and Sarah James, continue to move through the 30,000 artifacts recovered from the field. These objects come from about a 10% sample of the surface of our survey units (in other words, we walked each unit observing 2 m of 10 m swath, but only about 50% of each swath was visible.)

All of our field data was recorded on paper forms in pen by our field teams. It is instructive for us to understand that over the course of a 6 hour field day (around 7 am to around 1 pm) our teams spent around 2 hours walking. The remaining four hours was spent filling out paperwork, moving from unit to unit, and taking care of collected artifacts. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been thinking a bit about the benefits and liabilities of increasingly the efficiency of fieldwork. In fact, I’ve generally advocated approaches to fieldwork that encourage teams to slow down, move more carefully, observe more closely, take time to think critically, and resist the urge to turn time in the field into simply recording.

Of course, it is easy to advocate these practices from the luxury of a faculty office at repose in the warm embrace of tenure. In the field, where resources and time are limited (both to a 6 week season and a 3 year permit in Greece), it is really hard to slow down field work. If anything, there is relentless pressure to speed up, do more, sleep less! The temptation is particularly strong when it comes to the systematic collection of data. The urge to produce an impressive map, a substantial database, and quantitatively meaningful dataset can quickly drown out a commitment to more open-ended practices. If handwriting, paper forms in the field, slow the pace of data collection or even improves our ability to understand the complexities of the archaeological landscape, then perhaps the extra time necessary to write on paper is worth it.

Even a continued commitment to paper forms, however, does not ensure that our team leaders and field teams record thoughtfully (rather than just systematically) everything that they observe in the field. For example, we noticed that larger features that cannot be quantified or documented according to a set of rigorously enforced standards tended to get less attention from our teams. For feature recording we asked our teams to describe walls, buildings, kilns, wells, cisterns, or other manmade “features” in a free text area of the survey form. In general, these teams struggled to consistently record the shape, construction style, and location of features in units. We don’t think that our teams overlooked features as much as under-documented them over the course of their typical field day. The filling out of a survey form, then, became a microcosm for the larger issue facing intensive survey (and perhaps all of archaeology). The temptation is to collect easily quantifiable data or phenomena that we can articulate within relatively narrow parameters at the expense of more complicated artifacts in the fields. The latter slows the field team down because each instance requires a new description and this kind of creative engagement with each instance on its own terms produces a kind of messy data that is difficult to aggregate. The request by team leaders and field walkers to streamline feature description reinforced the pressure that they felt to document objects in the landscape in a thorough and systematic way without structured prompts.

As we spend the week organizing data from the field, I once again thought about whether we need to move more aggressively to using tablets to collect data in the field. Part of me sees the transition from paper forms as part of a larger process of improving the efficiency of basic data recording. This should, in turn, free up our team leaders to understand the landscape in a more nuanced and synthetic way. On the other hand, the demise of paper forms may push us further along a path where we engage the landscape in a highly fragmented, systematized and granular way in the name of efficiency.

So as we continue our digitally-mediate move toward efficiency in archaeology, I’ll continue to think about how the tools we use shape the landscape we create. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on the Western Argolid Regional Project 2014

July 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday was the last full field day with our field teams on the Western Argolid Regional Survey. So I thought I should do a traditional “Good, Bad, and Ugly” post from our field season. 

I should emphasize that the project was pretty remarkable. We covered an amazing amount of territory (almost 5.5 sq km), our field teams held up well, our team leaders remained (more or less) in good spirits, and we produced interesting results. With one week remaining we mostly have odds and ends to sort out, some drawings and photographs, and the usual work of data curation.

So without further ado:

The Good.

1. Units, Resolution, and Efficiency. We walked close to 2400 units while keeping our average unit size to under 2500 sq. m. and through most of the field season we walked an average of 92 units per day. The average unit took a little over 5 minutes to walk so taken together our field teams walked for around 7 hours and 40 minutes per day or about 2 hours per team per 6 hour field day. There are certainly gains to be made in efficiency, but the cost will be steep with our current manpower. 

2. Good Field Clothing. The project produced a spectacular display of innovative, synthetic, hip looking field clothes. The maquis, heat, spiders, and sweat took a toll on all field clothing. I destroyed a pair of decent field pants, but my Mountain Khakis held up with only one repair (generously made by Sarah James). Better still, my sub-$20 Dickies long-sleeve work shirts proved their reputation for indestructibility. Whatever I lost in terms of being stylish, my clothes survived the rigors of a 6+ week field season.


3. Beautiful Landscapes. We could not ask for a nicer survey area in terms of scenery. The upper reaches of the Inachos Valley was beautiful especially in the morning light which filtered through the olive trees and the vanishing dew.



4. Maps. We mapped our survey units using two sets of very recent satellite images on we printed on a sheet of paper and other we carried with us on our Garmin Oregon GPS units. The two maps were taken at different times of year so they provide different views of the vegetation in our survey area. Mapping onto these high resolution and very recent satellite images was much easier than our practice with earlier surveys where we mapped onto 1:5000 maps or the 1960s era aerial photographs taken by the Greek army.

The Bad.

1. I’m old. This was the hardest field season that I have ever experienced. My body started to ache about week 4 or 5 and by the end of week 6, I was ill with some kind of fatigue induced cold. My ankle is swollen, my knee is glitchy, and I’m riddled with little cuts, sores, and rashes. 


2. Boots. The sharp-edged limestone of the Argolid and Corinthia is absolutely brutal on boots. So far this season, I’ve seen gashed soles, torn leather, eviscerated nylon, and other boot related disasters.

3. Puppies. I’ve never been a dog person, but I’ll admit that watching the puppy saga unfold this year on WARP was heartrending. I’m glad that we managed to save the “micro-dog” although I’m worried that it’ll never learn to walk properly (although people say at 6 weeks no puppy can walk properly). So this is not a bad thing in a traditional sense, but it was an unexpected emotional outlay. 

The Ugly.

1. Spider Sticks. The Western Argolid is filled with large spiders who build beautiful webs between closely spaced trees. These things are creepy and the webs are sticky and annoying especially when you come upon them unexpectedly while field walking. Students (and staff!) discovered the value of a the spider stick. This is a stick – usually made of olive wood – that can brush aside spider webs as you field walk. Unfortunately, they can also be used as weapons to beat down a team leader who has pushed a bit too hard. We only narrowly averted a spider stick uprising in the waning weeks of the season.


2. Paper Forms. Our data recording involved two steps. Writing on paper forms in the field and keying the data into a database. The days of paper forms are almost over, however. We saw how the Mazi Project is using iPads to streamline data flow from the field to the laptop. I think there is also a chance that iPads will allow for better, more robust datasets that include more images, more field drawings, and more integrated data both in the field and in the lab.  


3. Larry Potter.  This season was the season of Larry Potter. As my colleagues pointed out, this cohort of students have been involved with Larry Potter from the time they learned to read and the novels, movies, and soundtracks dominate their world. In fact, we had to talk about the possibility that the bamboo sticks used to separate lots in our workspace might be tempting swords, Quidditch sticks, or wands and how that might be facilitate an unhelpful blurring of the line between the productive space of the archaeological workroom and the fantasy space of Larry Potter and friends.

Towers on Euboea

July 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

The most recent Hesperia has an interesting article on the ancient towers of the Paximadi Peninsula on Euboia. This is one of the best know groups of towers in Greece despite their poor state of preservation. Becky Seifried and Bill Parkinson begin their work with the catalogue of 25 towers prepared by Donald Keller in the 1980s and then expanded by Southern Euboia Exploration Project some ten years later.

The article presents a revised and expanded version of Keller’s catalogue and offer some significant insights into the function of these towers. Without going to too much detail, Seifried and Parkinson more or less agree with many of the observations that David Pettegrew, Sarah James, and I made about the fortifications at the site of Ano Vayia (.pdf). We argued that, at least for the Late Classical and Early Hellenistic period, many rural fortifications reflect local concerns rather than concerns of the polis or some kind of central authority.

(As an aside, I was really excited to see all the round towers of Classical date on the Paximadi peninsula. I tended to associate round structures with more sophisticated building practices and a more skilled workforce perhaps associated with regional level powers. This, then, confused me when we encountered a round tower at the relatively isolated site of Ano Vayia. The frequency of round towers on the Paximadi peninsula provided me with a nice body of comparanda for our fortification at Ano Vayia (below).)

Www ascsa edu gr pdf uploads hesperia 40981055 pdfFortifications on Ano Vayia in the Corinthia

Our arguments, however, were limited by our focus on a single site with a unique location, Seifreid and Parkinson take our argument a step further by looking at a group. One of the more intriguing aspects of their argument is the possibility that the towers built during the Classical period served to protect the limited agricultural resources present on the peninsula. In fact, the towers may have been built by individual landowners to protect their farms and land. The high degree of inter visibility between the towers of Classical date suggests that landowners worked together to create a mutual defense network.

Seifried and Parkinson 2014 Offprint pdf page 34 of 39Lines of site between Classical period towers on the Paximadi Peninsula, Euboia

The relationship between the towers, then, is not the product of a central government, but rather the relationship between individual landowners who invested in a kind of social insurance based on the locating of towers in intervisible locations in the landscape. One might even see the locating of towers as part of a community of practice that recognized mutual defense in a threatening world was as much a priority for farmers as terraces, threshing floors, and access to water. 


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