Excavating my Office

August 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

I know it’s a bit hackneyed now for archaeologists to document the material culture of their office, but I cleaned my office yesterday for the first time in about five years.

I won’t say anything profound or amazing, but I was shocked by the quantity of residual stuff floating around my office. 

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For example, I found a ticket stub for a Son Seals’ concert at Little Brother’s in Columbus, Ohio in 1997.

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I found some Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh CDs.

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And some photographs and old pictures that my wife sent with me to Athens when I was at the American School of Classical Studies in 2007-8.

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I’ll admit to being a bit of a packrat and keeping stuff rather than discarding it (note the stacks of paper articles on my big table in the first photograph). The persistence of such flotsam in my office assemblage made me think about how even in a world characterized by digital archiving and remarkable abundance we still find objects hanging around in perishable forms for decades. 

A Proposed Blog Series: Archaeology and Craft

August 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Over the past few years there has been a renewed interest in the role of craft in archaeological practice. The locus classicus of this discussion is the influential, if not unproblematic, article by Michael Shanks and Randall Maguire in the 1996 volume of American Antiquity. This article, however, focused more on the role of craft in archaeological epistemology and less on the practical aspects of a craft approach. The growth of methodology as a substantial discourse in the discipline and the transformative impact of new digital technologies have provided particular challenges to the less standardized practices that have traditionally formed the basis foundations of archaeological knowledge.

At the same time, a more systematic and methodological approaches to archaeological knowledge have undoubtedly benefited the field and the discipline. In fact, the development of a archaeological methods grounded in standardized practice has characterized the belated professionalization of the discipline with all the attendant social benefits of this process. The growing interest in craft and the abiding confidence in archaeological method, then, represent two countervailing, if not mutually exclusive, trends in archaeological practice.

A conversation last week over Twitter and across several blogs stimulated me to think a bit more systematically about the intersection of craft and archaeology. I posted on it here and hope that others might consider continuing the conversation.

From my perspective there are three significant issues involving craft in archaeology (but I’m sure there are more!):

1. Craft in the Field. How and where do craft approaches exist in archaeological practice and how have recent trends in archaeological methodology limited the influence of traditional craft approaches to field practice (for better or for worse). In craft, the master craftsman has intellectual and bodily control over the entire productive process. How do we reconcile craft modes of archaeological production with those grounded in more industrial modes?

2. Craft in the Discipline. While the modes of knowledge production associated with craft have sometimes taken on a nostalgic glow in recent years, they can also carry forward a set of deeply conservative attitudes regarding access to the field (both literally and figuratively) and the authority to produce archaeological knowledge. In many cases, the authority within a system of craft derives from vaguely defined notions of  “expertise” and “experience” which while important in archaeological work, tend to reinforce hierarchical social arrangement and privilege certain groups who have had traditional access to field work opportunities, material, and the previous generation of archaeological masters (e.g. old, white, men).  In contrast, in professional archaeological knowledge is a product of rigorous adherence to modern, industrial, field practices (often mediated by technology) which could be acquired through the study of published work on methodology. This had the advantage of opening of the discipline to a wider group of practitioners by undermining field practices that reproduced traditional social hierarchies. Do appeals to archaeology as craft present real risks for archaeology as a discipline?

3. Craft and Technology. In recent years, it appears that archaeology’s increasing engagement with technology would bring about a revolution in field and publication practices. With more data collected in more sophisticated way and at a faster rate, technological changes has accelerated the slow process of field documentation. This has ensure that we have more information from our time in the field, and less time for the deliberate and contemplative aspects of the archaeologist craft. I realize that juxtaposing craft with practices mediate by technology is not entirely fair or accurate; at the same time, I can think of few technologies used regularly in archaeological work that explicitly reinforce the kind of haptic, embodied knowledge of traditional archaeological experience. Does archaeology used technology in such a way to marginalize opportunities for engagements grounded in craft?    

These issues are meant as points of departure rather than limits on what we can consider in this series of posts, and they are meant to be a bit polemic to stimulate reflection on the role of craft in the discipline. I’d welcome contributions that go beyond these rather simple proposition or reject them completely. (For some of my own reflections on archaeology, history, and craft go here.)

Over the next few months, we hope to present a series of contributions on the issue of craft in current archaeological practice. The contributions will appear weekly either on my blog here, or, if we can arrange it, on Then Dig. Once we have an assemblage of contributions, I am willing to edit and publish them in an ebook and paper. Better still,, I’m open to co-editors or even guest editors to help with the practical and intellectual aspects of the editorial process. I’m currently finishing up editorial duties on last years’ 3D Thursday contributions and they will, with any luck, appear early this fall.

As for the mechanics of contributions, I’m willing to be the contact person for now, so please drop me an email at billcaraher [at] gmail [dot] com or leave a comment on this post. I don’t see any need to impose word limits on contributions and longer post can be broken across several weeks if that would work better. I’m happy to post images as well, and having necessary permissions and publication quality images (e.g. 600 dpi or better) will facilitate the final editing process for publication. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

August 1, 2014 § 2 Comments

One month into my sabbatical, I find it is slowly slipping away without much of anything happening. For some reason I assumed that having a year free from teaching would instantly produce an unprecedented outburst of productivity. So far, it’s mostly produced anxiety about my lack of productivity. Only ten more months left, so pressure’s on.

Before I go on with my typical list of gewgaws and links, I do want to direct some attention to a benefit event being held to help out my youngest brother. He’s the creative one in the family and he’s fallen on some tough times. Over the past decade, Fritz has worked to coordinate charity events and benefits in the Ft. Myers area. Now, some of his friends are putting together a benefit concert to help with his mounting medical bills. That’s right, we have Fritz Aid. Let’s do this.

While I fret about all the things that need to happen today, you should take this opportunity to relax and enjoy some quick hits and varia.

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The Mighty Milo in Repose
Blurred for Effect. 

Another View of Ghost Towns, Process and Product

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

My colleague Prof. Cindy Prescott generously offered this response to the my conversations with Troy Larson. 

Bill’s previous blog post and Troy’s response raise interesting questions about intellectual property and the relationship between academic and public history. Many researchers in the hard sciences worry constantly about being “scooped.” Historians (and people in the humanities in general) tend to worry far less about this, since we tend to be pursuing lines of inquiry that interest each of us individually, rather than all working toward common goals or on common problems (say, curing cancer). And the nature of historical research and publishing also means that the timeline is much slower — which is perhaps made possible by the fact that we’re less likely to be trying to beat each other to publish the same material.

Academic historians have traditionally staked a claim to their chosen research topics at conferences, which (sometimes) have a shorter lead time than do historical journals, let alone coveted monographs. But in my experience, historians generally value conference presentations for the opportunity that they represent to receive feedback from knowledgeable people who can help us to hone our arguments, more so than as an opportunity to stake a claim to a particular topic. Thus you are willing to share your database, because you believe that other trained scholars will bring their own perspectives to bear on that data and produce interesting arguments that enhance, challenge, or perhaps refute your findings. As an academic historian, you are free to welcome such challenges and refutations, precisely because you have already received the substantial benefit of a Ph.D. diploma and a tenure-track job on the basis of your interpretation of the data.

Likewise, I published a book based on my dissertation that will never make me a single cent, and I’m OK with that, because I didn’t write it to make money. I wrote it so that I could get and keep a job at a university. And I would gladly share the database on which I based part of that book — should it be useful to anyone else without me having to go back and bring order to my crazy notes — because I’d welcome different interpretations of that data. The worst that would happen to me is that someone might publish something that refutes my book and discourages people from buying the remaining stock of my book before it gets remaindered. Either way, I’m not getting any cash out of the deal, and it wouldn’t take away my tenure.

Blogs and other internet materials raise these questions precisely because they welcome engagement by the general public, who do not operate within the terms of academic scholarship. As I understand it, Troy Larson has been willing to share his images and ideas online not only because he’s generous, but also because he seeks to benefit from sharing them with an audience in much the same way that an academic traditionally has benefitted from presenting at academic conferences: (1) he gains an audience for an intended publication, and (2) he gains information and perspectives from others that will strengthen that publication. An academic historian wants very similar things, but ultimately seeks different long-term benefits. Academics, then, can afford to be more generous with data than can public scholars. As faculty at a public university, we’re essentially being paid to do so.

I’m intrigued by your comparison to borrowing from someone else’s class syllabus. For all that we insist on intellectual property rights to our teaching, I think that most academics will willingly share the reading lists for their classes. Indeed, we tend to borrow from one another’s reading lists, seeking the tried-and-true rather than to be cutting edge in terms of reading assignments. I suspect most college instructors would be somewhat more hesitant to share their lectures or active learning assignments, but even these we are more willing to share freely. We tend to think of teaching as a more collaborative experience — perhaps because no one is going to publish my lesson plans or give me tenure on the basis of those lesson plans. But perhaps more importantly, it’s because even someone who had my lecture notes would still have to stand up and deliver that lecture — and it would sound and look different from what I deliver in class.

I think that intellectual property concerns get raised far more often — and appropriately so — when it comes to the realm of online teaching. While a grad student could certainly deliver a lecture drawn from my lecture notes in their own course, that feels different to me than having someone else launch an online course using lectures that I had typed/videotaped/tegrity-ed. Because then they’re not just delivering a lecture based on my content (which in turn is based on information drawn from mainstream textbooks and materials). But my personal objection would come less from their cribbing of my ideas (which I had quite appropriately gathered from published sources in the first place, and in which I generally am not trying to make an original argument), and more from the sense that they are cheating and stealing my work. In other words, my objection comes not from them borrowing my content, but from them using my hard work without me benefitting. Why this is OK when sharing lesson plans but not OK when copying lectures, I’m not entirely sure – especially considering that I generally dislike lecturing, and am far more invested in, and am more proud of, my active learning assignments. I suspect that it is because I tend to view sharing ideas/plans for active learning assignments as part of the larger project of intellectual exchange that is one of my favorite parts of a career in academia (and that sharing tends to strengthen my other favorite part of an academic career: having an impact on student learners). But to copy a lecture wholesale feels like stealing or outsourcing my work (something that might allow the university to replace me and my tenure line with a cheaper teaching assistant or adjunct), rather than engaging in an intellectual exchange. I suspect that non-academic researchers like Troy Larson, who are depending on their information-gathering to make a living, would see someone else using their database more like I would look at someone else delivering my pre-recorded lecture content – particularly if the people using the data are supported by a larger structure such as a public university. While I am fearful of having my material “stolen” (used extensively) by someone who would teach for cheaper (a grad student or adjunct instructor), Troy Larson appears fearful of having his material “stolen” (used extensively) by someone who might be far better paid, but whose paycheck is primarily supported by their other services to a large research university.

Ghosts Towns, Process, and Product on the World Wide Web

July 31, 2014 § 2 Comments

I had originally intended to write about the local humanities this morning, but I was distracted by an interesting little discussion on the internet. A local author, Troy Larson, took issues with a website produced for a class offered by Tom Isern, a historian at North Dakota State University. Tom had designed the class, as far as I can recall, to produce a catalogue of North Dakota “Ghost Towns”. Troy Larson is the local expert on North Dakota Ghost Towns and has published a couple of coffee table books on the subject and maintains a remarkable blog called Ghosts of North Dakota. By all means, go and buy his book and surf his blog. They’re both pretty cool things.

Update: Troy has responded to my post here, and, better still, included a link to his original thoughts on the issue here with screen shots.

The website prepared for Tom’s class had a list of ghost towns on it with a series of links to Troy’s blog. From what I gathered, these links were designed to get students started on Tom’s larger ghost town project. In general, Troy has dedicated his blog to photographs with very short historical sketches of the towns with a bit of census information and some notes about local postal service. Most of this information is available in one way or another on the internet. In many cases former and even current residents of these towns make comments on Troy’s blog. In short, Troy’s blog is one of the best points of departure for research on small places in North Dakota. 

The kerfuffle began when Tom’s class page pointed to Troy’s blog as a point of departure for student research on ghost towns. Apparently, the goal of Tom’s class was to produce a book or part of a book on abandoned places in North Dakota. From what I understand that goal has not been achieved yet so there is no final product. The internet, as this blog is ample evidence for, provides access to process, however, and Troy objected to the process that Tom’s class was using to start their research. And then this all hit Facebook and got pretty exciting for a couple of days. 

This is an interesting problem on two levels. First, it demonstrates two fundamentally different ways of viewing information made available on the web. Troy naturally feels protective of the work he has invested into an impressive resource that he generously made available on the web. I can’t really say for sure what Tom’s motives are, but I suspect they were similar to mine when I created an index to my History 101 class that consisted entirely of links to Wikipedia. If a resource is available on the web, I feel pretty comfortable deploying it for whatever schemes or goals I have in mind. (Tom is a sometime reader of this blog and is known to have a wry smile about many things in life, so maybe he’ll post a comment).  

In fact, much of my academic career has been dedicated to creating resources that I hope other people will do more with than I have. For example, I included a catalogue of over 200 churches in my dissertation, and it is available for free for download via Ohio State’s library catalogue. I fully (and optimistically) expected someone to use my catalogue to produce their own studies of Early Christian basilicas in Greece. In fact, I think the enduring value to my work is probably not the analysis (which will always represent strains of thinking grounded in a particular time and place), but the catalogue, which will hopefully represent a resource for the next generation of scholars. David Pettegrew and I have made available a photographic catalogue of houses at the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and our data from our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus.

From what I understand, and please Troy correct me here, is that Troy objects to his project being used as a sources of data for another similar project. Since the internet provides a kind of transparency of process, he was able to see how another group was using his “data” and object prior to the appearance of a final product that may or may not compete with his work. 

Much of the debate on Facebook centered around matters of etiquette. Troy was particularly put out that Tom did not ask for permission to use his content as a point of departure for his class. I’ve had a few scholars ask for permission to use my dissertation catalogue, but this is hardly necessary.

Perhaps a better point of comparison is that I ask people who read and cite my working papers to ask permission by including in bold across every page: “Do Not Cite Without Author’s Permission.” This is largely because most working papers get updated regularly and a more current copy of a paper might exist or the paper gets published and a more stable citation exists for the same content. I suppose Troy could ask people who want to use his content or link to his page to ask permission, but I am not sure that this would do anything but limit the reach and audience of his work.  

The debate is still simmering on Facebook as I write this post and with any luck Troy and Tom will comment here to clarify their positions. What interests me the most is seeing how the relative transparency of the internet has created new social expectations. I think back to my largely pre-internet graduate school days where certain resources like A.H.M. Jones’ Later Roman Empire (1964) or well-acronymed Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium served as guides for many issues in the Late Antique world. Neither Jones nor Khazdan could know, of course, if we were using their work and its hard to avoid the idea that many recent books and encyclopedias on these topics used the exhaustive efforts of Jones and Khazdan as a guide. I wonder whether Troy would have felt different had Tom used a paper syllabus and assigned copies of Troy’s books as a guide for his class? Would Troy have ever even known?

I also wonder whether the relatively small and tight nit community of scholars interested in North Dakota also played a part in how this particular controversy took place? It seems like Troy was particularly offended that Tom didn’t ask or contact him before linking liberally to his blog. The courtesies, much like waving on a lonely rural road in North Dakota, are the kind of thing that happens regularly in small communities where people know one another and both Tom and Troy live in Fargo. I wonder whether Troy would have felt the same way if Tom was a professor at, say, the University of Texas or University of Queensland in Australia?

Finally, it is interesting that some of the rhetoric (and I’ll ask Troy to clarify this, if he thinks I’m mischaracterizing him in any way) is grounded in the difference in how academics and non-academics see resources made available on the web. As we academics explore small, privately produced collections  on the web (many of which are curated by antiquarians like Troy), we will have to think more carefully about how we use these resources both to respect the significant investment of time and energy that they involved and to transfer their value effectively to an academic context.

I’m reluctant to see either Troy or Tom in the wrong here, but this little controversy (by the standards of the internet) reminds us how far we are from understanding how this media works even after in the 25th year of the World Wide Web Era. 

Archaeology and Craft in the 21st Century

July 30, 2014 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, here’s a draft proposal:

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

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

Trash, Pollution, and the Rural World

July 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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