Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Yesterday walking to my car, I finally felt the first blast of real winter here in North Dakotaland. What was odd was that it wasn’t even really that cold (27° F). I reminded me that winter is not so much a season or even a temperature, but an experience.

Fortunately, as the semester limps its way to conclusion, I have a warm fire at home, a comfortable chair, a couple of manuscripts to read, and some music to enjoy (and it is Bandcamp Friday!).

Speaking of music: 

It is also a decent weekend in sports with Australia looking to avoid a draw in its first test of the summer, two impressive cards of boxing (including a heavy weight championship), a Sixers game, an Eagles game, and a slew of college football. I know that I will have to get up from my chair from time to time (for healthy and safety reasons, if nothing else), but I won’t like it.

This won’t impair my ability to produce some quick hits and varia:

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Three Things Thursday: Flow, Sun Ra, and NDQ

I feel like I haven’t done a Three Things Thursday for a while and at this point of the semester, I feel like I’m doing all I can just to keep various balls in the air.

So here goes:

Thing the First

This week, my students in my introductory level World Civilizations class are working to revise the papers that they’ve been writing all semester. As they prepare to revise their latest drafts, I asked them to make a list of things to work on in their final draft. The top thing on their list was working on FLOW. 

I love the idea of flow especially when it refers to that state of semi-consciousness when things just seem to come easily. I see it used when describing musicians who are improvising and athletes who are immersed in a performance. But I don’t think that the students are referring to that. Instead, they see flow as something that they can inject into their writing. For many of these students, flow is something that exists at the level of the sentence or the paragraph and that smooths transitions between ideas, statements, and phrases. It makes a text easier to read.

It’s been interesting to try to convince them that flow isn’t something to be added at the end, like a sprinkling of salt or a garnish on a bowl of soup, but something that is inherent in how we organize our ideas. Flow comes from the synchronization of our ideas and arguments with the language that we use to express them.   

Thing the Second

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota works closely with its authors to promote their work, but we also acknowledge that we don’t have a marketing budget, we don’t have resources to run the flag up at conference, and we don’t advertise much if at all. 

As a result, we work to amplify the efforts of our authors to promote their work. Here’s a great example of this.

You can can get a copy of Sun Ra Sundays here.

Thing the Third

As readers of this blog know, we’ve been working on the pulling together the North Dakota Quarterly archive. Building an archive is always a work in progress (it would seem) and we discovered that we missed a volume of the journal during our first round of scanning.

My student collaborators on this remain relentless and they scanned this volume to add to the collection of archived North Dakota Quarterly.

Here’s a link to a story by Michelle Disler (who is also contributing to the most recent volume of NDQ some 15 years on!).

NDQ 75 3 4 OCR pdf 2022 12 01 09 56 00

Why Pseudoarchaeology and Why Now?

I’ve very much enjoyed the recent and ongoing conversation about pseudoarchaeology across various social media platforms. I’ve been writing some stuff here on my blog (which you can check out here, if you want). There are largely meant as notes for some kind of future project, but hopefully they continue to add to the ongoing conversation.

There are two things that I’ve recently come to recognize in the current conversations surrounding Graham Hancock’s Ancient Apocalypse. To be clear, I haven’t and won’t watch this show. I trust the critiques provided by guys like Flint Dibble and Andre Costopoulos. I guess my comments here and elsewhere are largely “meta” in that they refer not so much to Hancock’s tomfoolery as to the conversations surrounding it.

1. Empiricism and its Discontents. One of the key aspects of most responses to Hancock’s claims (and pseudoarchaeology more broadly) is that their not empirically true. In other words, Hancock’s claims require him to ignore, fabricate, or distort evidence in order to make his arguments. In other cases, Hancock’s logic appears to be circular or other wise flawed. As a result, his arguments are not falsifiable (sensu Popper) which makes them difficult to challenge using the traditional archaeological toolkit. This is deliberate of course and part of what makes pseudoarchaeology a form of intellectual resistance to what is often seen as a hegemonic scientific discourse. 

We recognize as archaeologists, of course, that there are many things in archaeology that simply can’t be explained in a falsifiable way. Alternative archaeologies, phenomenological approaches, affective archaeologies, and various forms of speculative archaeological narration also fall outside the range of falsifiability. Perhaps these forms of archaeological knowledge making are less defiant in tone that some of the more flamboyant pseudoarchaeologists, but they are often meaningful forms of resistance to the problematic legacy of scientific archaeology.  

1. Blurring Genre Lines. One thing that appears to genuinely frost archaeologists icebergs is that Hancock’s show fashions itself a documentary. For most viewers, then, this show exudes a certain amount of “truthiness” to it or at least an openness to academic debate on the merits of his claims (even if we accept that they do not conform to conventional standards of falsifiability that remain important to more scientific approaches to archaeology).

Of course, this blurring of genre is a characteristic of the contemporary media. We are constantly being challenged with new hybrid forms of media from reality TV to various forms of creative non-fiction and prose poetry, the growing popularity of cinéma vérité techniques in fictional settings (e.g. The Office, Parks & Recreation, et c.), the resurgent popularity of Werner Herzog, on the one hand, and camp on the other, and the emergence of TV news programs designed more to entertain than inform. 

As scholars, we have generally embraced and even celebrated this erasure of clear generic borders and the siloing of knowledge making techniques. For example, combinations of science and art, literature and professional degrees (such as Medical Humanities), and even such odd bedfellows as business and ethics (business ethics!). Outside of the academy, however, we proceed with a bit more unsteady footing. In a panel a few years back on writing archaeology for the public, there was a palpable unease about the very idea of creative nonfiction (scroll down here). It is clear that as a discipline we continue to struggle with how we represent ambiguity.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that deceptive practices in the media should escape comment or be encouraged. At the same time, we need to recognize that pseudoarchaeology is fundamentally a transmedia phenomenon (that is, it has influenced film, music, fiction, poetry, non-fiction, visual media, and social media) in ways that far exceed what we have been able to accomplish as disciplinary practitioners of archaeology. Resisting the more nefarious expressions of pseudoarchaeology has to involve more than just demanding that pseudoarchaeologists state their intentions clearly. It involves recognizing how these ideas spread in cultural media that fall outside archaeologists’ typical critical remit. 

2. In Search of Foreclosed Pasts. One thing that I’ve started to think about over the last week or so is how alternative views of the past tend to emerge at points where there is both perceived discontinuity in the past (i.e. the end of the ancient world, apocalypses, vanish civilizations, episodes of collapse, and so on) and in the present. I guess everyone knows this, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite register with me.

I suppose the reason for this is that when we recognize that the past does not necessarily culminate in the present. That is to say, when we come to realize that our past actions as humans have not necessarily produced a sustainable present. In other words, our current historical trajectory, despite the hopes and promises of progress, has become dead end. Climate change, environmental degradation, social fracturing, and resurgent totalitarianism has revealed the bankruptcy of modernity, scientific thinking, capitalism, and narratives of progress.

As a society, then, we’ve started to look at the past with a growing sense of urgency in an effort to identify a moment when things went wrong. In this context, a renewed openness to new ways (both good and bad) at engaging with the plurality of human experiences has made it possible to explore pasts foreclosed by the hegemonic power of modernity.

Most pseudoarchaeology doesn’t neatly into this category and, in fact, in many forms to embraces a parodic form of modernity. In this way, it adopts many of the ironic features of camp including exaggerated ironic forms of expression, confrontational forms of rhetoric, and plenty of bombastic claims. This kind of vigorous shaking and mockery of modern practices of knowledge making almost certainly expresses the growing anxiety that we feel as we confront the problems facing our world. By mocking and mimicking the modern pretensions of academic archaeology, pseudoarchaeology pushes us to recognize the limits of our own capacity to produce a compelling present.

This isn’t to excuse pseudoarchaeology when it devolves into racism or conspiracy theories, but instead to explain why this kind of anti-scientific (or pseudo-scientific) way of thinking has become increasingly prevalent. As a colleague pointed out to me the other day, our society is struggling not because we don’t have enough science, but perhaps because we have too much.

Cyber Monday from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (feat. North Dakota Quarterly)

It’s Cyber Monday which, to my mind, isn’t really a thing. That said, we live in a world where quite a few things that aren’t things (e.g. the entire internet) seem to exist and go about their daily business. As a result, it seems wise to at least acknowledge Cyber Monday has a kind of existence even if its “thingness” should be qualified.

Once we get to the point of acknowledging its existence, it makes sense to celebrate it in some way. 

So, here’s the deal.

Below is a link, click the link and download the entire 2022 catalogue from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and a special gift from North Dakota Quarterly. It’s free. The books are good, and since I’m not charging anything, I feel like I’m doing my part to subvert the commercial non-thing energy of Cyber Monday and to replace it with something more joyful, more convivial, and more positive. 

CLICK HERE.

With that one click, you’ll get:

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global Travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist. 2021. From Bookshop.org.

Epoiesen 5 (2021). From Amazon.com.

Michael G. Michlovic and George R. Holley, Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend. 2022. From Bookshop.org.

Brian R. Urlacher, The Library of Chester Fritz. 2022. From Amazon.com.

Jurij Koch, The Cherry Tree. Translated by John. K. Cox. North Dakota Quarterly Supplement Series, Volume 2. 2022. From Amazon.com.

Rodger Coleman, Sun Ra Sundays. Edited by Sam Byrd. 2022. From Amazon.com.

And remember, if you really HAVE to buy a book in paper, proceeds from each sale helps The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota continue to publish more books and make them available for free! Likewise, consider subscribing to NDQ.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Apparently we’re due a final gasp of fall weather this weekend with temperatures soaring into the 40s. This doesn’t quite feel like Thanksgiving and I suspect is a harbinger of the new normal. That said, I’ll take a day that doesn’t involve multiple layers of clothing this late in the year and embrace the chance to open the windows and let some cool air into the house. 

That said, it’s still pleasant enough to sit by the fire, enjoy the warm smells of holiday cooking, and watch some festive football. Readers of this blog probably know that this weekend is more than just another casual sports day and the highlight of the weekend is “The Game” between OSU and Michigan. I’ll also enjoy the Eagles on Sunday night and I’ll keep an eye on the Spiders and the UND Fighting Hawks as they play in the FCS playoffs. There’s also solid slate of boxing and basketball on offer. I don’t reckon I’ll move much from my chair today.

That said, I still have plenty to do including finishing my powerpoint for my talk on Monday. You can check out the announcement for my talk and information how to attend here. Start to prep for my spring classes (including submitting my book order for Roman History) and catch up on some grading in my fall classes. I’m also so very close to being done with page proofs for NDQ 89.3/4!

In the meantime, here as some quick hits and varia:

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A Little Pseudoarchaeology for Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone and especially to all the generous and thoughtful folks who have engaged with me over the last few weeks on social media as I worked through my ideas on pseudoarchaeology!

As a bit of a thank you gift, here’s a very recent work published by Fred Moten in Conjunctions 79 called “Sylph Set.”  

 

Some Other Archaeology: Late Antiquity at Polis: Recent Research

In some ways, I’ve found the recent discussions of pseudoarchaeology energizing and thought provoking (and as I explain in this twitter thread, my development as an archaeology and a pseudoarchaeology have very much occurred in interrelated ways).

Next week, I’ll present some of my recent work in the village of Polis, where we work on the site of Late Roman and Byzantine Arsinoe. The talk is at 7:30 PM EEST (or 11:30 AM in CST). You can register for the talk via zoom here.

Here’s the abstract and some media. I’ll post a version of my paper next week and apparently it’ll be recorded. Here are some thoughts about my talk.

Starting in 1984, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition excavated areas around the village of Polis-tis-Chrysochous in northwestern Cyprus. These excavations revealed a wide range of buildings and contexts dating from the Late Antique period including two Early Christian basilica style churches surrounded by various buildings that appear to stretch along the northern edge of the city. At some point in Late Antiquity, most of this area appears to have become a massive cemetery, presumably centered on the two churches. Recent research has revealed that the buildings along the northern edge of the city underwent continuous renovation and reconfiguration even as burials encroached.

William Caraher posterWilliam Caraher invitation

Pseudoarchaeology is in the Air

This past weekend, I attended the annual meeting of ASOR, which is the annual meeting of Near Eastern archaeologists, and pseudoarchaeology was in the air. Of course, most of this is because of the recent Netflix series featuring Graham Hancock.

For more of my writing about the significance of pseudoarchaeology, see here.

That series has led to a social media tumult and the usual anti-pseudoarchaeology warriors have sharpened their spears and hefted their shields and joined the fray once more. The best part of their work, which is largely commendable, is that it pushes us as archaeologists to reflect on what makes us “real” archaeologists and others “pseudoarchaeologists.” Inevitably, we find ourselves as a discipline forced to confront our racist, colonialist, positivist, and exclusionary past and look at the pseudoarchaeological mirror and cringe at our uncanny resemblance to the most shameless leveraging of our discipline to advance a sensational, self-serving (at best), and even racist (at worst) agenda.

Our disciplinary response is predictable. We double down on our privileged position and use of rigorous methods to interpret the past. This is most obviously expressed in our efforts to push the value of our collective experience doing fieldwork in diverse and exotic locales and further reinforced through the litany of graduate degrees, professional publications, and credentials. We express all this through twitter threads and earnest commentaries which untangle the rhetorical strategies adopted by Hancock and others in order to demonstrate their genealogical, historical, and logical flaws.

As one might predict, it gets messy, but a good kind of messy in that it celebrates bringing Flannery’s “real archaeologist” back into the fold along side his more theoretically minded colleagues. Even then, most of us have to admit that pseudoarchaeology is a slippery thing because “real” archaeology is a slippery thing, but we’re also pretty sure that we’re right.

In this situation, I have a few modest suggestions for our disciplinary shock troops. None of these are likely to be adopted, and I admit that I’m being idiosyncratic here and working more to shift our attention back on our discipline than to undermine the creditability and influence of the putative other.

But, as Flint Dibble would say: buckle up!

1. Context Matters. The first thing that I learned in archaeology is context matters. This means that before we can say anything about an assemblage, deposit, artifact, object or situation, we have to make sure that we understand the very proximate context. My more post-modern inclined friends will gently rib me that “context” as such doesn’t really exist outside the network of relationships privileged by our discipline. But whatever. 

I find myself drawn to thinking about the context that makes pseudoarchaeology so popular in the public sphere. On the one hand, it seems hard to deny that pseudoarchaeological ideas often draw upon ideas prominent in popular culture since at least the turn of the 20th century and particularly drawn to issues that reflect our collective anxieties regarding the limits of scientific knowledge. We also can appreciate pseudoarchaeology’s interest in the sites of disasters as part of our immediate (and long-standing) concerns for our increasingly vulnerability to planet wide climate change, warfare and displacement, pandemic and diseases, and other situations that in a less self-involved time might be harbingers of the apocalypse. Populist political leaders fuel these anxieties by stoking racial animosities, casting doubt on our collective capacity to do good, and undermining the privileged position of experts. Finally, media outlets have discovered that leveraging these anxieties and the politically polarized landscape is good for business because not only do these programs attract believers (or the “open minded”) but they also attract virulent responses from the opponents. These responses, especially on social media, amplify the message of pseudoarchaeology programs and stimulates intense discussion, debates, and disputes across platforms. In short, the tensions between our apocalyptic present, politically expedient manipulation of contemporary anxieties, and the desire to court controversy on social media platforms as a way to promote programing creates a perfect storm for pseudoarchaeology to explode once again across the public consciousness. 

On the other hand, archaeology as a discipline is embattled. The burdens of our racist, colonialist, and nationalist past have thrown the historical credibility of archaeological knowledge making practices into dispute. Archaeologists have also suffered from broader critiques of academic science and the humanities both from within and outside of the academy. These criticisms have only compounded the impact of budget cuts and changing institutional and national priorities on the future of our discipline. In sum, these are desperate days for archaeology as a discipline.

2. Recognize common ground. I’ve also found it helpful to recognize and appreciate the common ground between pseudo- and “real” archaeology. Some of this is quite literal: archaeologists and pseudoarchaeologists are often interested—either explicitly or implicitly—in the same problems: collapse and origins of civilizations, economic, political, and cultural contact and connectivity between groups, and how new technologies can shed new light on old problems or even disrupt traditional paradigms. 

Of course, the reason for this is that pseudoarchaeology is older than archaeology as disciplinary practice. The efforts of archaeologists to distinguish (or to demarcate) what “we” do from what “they do” (or did) was fundamental to the process of disciplinary definition in the late 19th and early 20th century. The rise of archaeology as a modern discipline involved shedding or suppressing the influence of pre- and anti-modern practices that remain common to pseudoarchaeology. The shared lineage of archaeology and pseudoarchaeology strike me as crucial for appreciating both approaches to understanding the past and serves as a constant reminder that “we have never been modern” and that archaeology and pseudoarchaeology have always been in dialogue.

3. Avoid calls for disciplinary purity. To continue in a Latourian vein, I think recognizing the shared genealogy of pseudo- and “real” archaeology also guards against a certain “toxic” temptation to enforce disciplinary purity.

If the last fifty years in archaeology have taught us anything, it’s that our discipline has consists of a wide range of voices. Moreover, these voices do not offer a pure or cohesive or consistent view of the past. Some scholars have come to understand our discipline as “archaeologies” to avoid insinuating that there is a singular notion of what archaeology is. This acceptance of messy plurality within our discipline means that there is room for voices who not only view the past using radically different methods, epistemologies, ontologies and outlooks, but also seek to subvert traditional approaches.   

In other words, archaeological knowledge making, like archaeology itself, is messy (and as any number of folks have noted, this is hardly surprising because it deals with trash). As a result, the shared legacy of our pseudoarchaeological origins is still present in our contemporary practice. This means that we can expect even the most flawed thinking present in contemporary pseudoarchaeology to have the capacity to influence contemporary archaeological knowledge. 

Of course, this also authorizes us to critique pseudoarchaeology in much the same way that we critique any archaeological practice, method, or epistemology, but I’m increasingly coming around to the idea that we should do this in ways that appreciates the role that pseudoarchaeology has and will play in our disciplinary identity. 

4. Resist the temptation to debunk. This means that we have to resist the temptation to try to “debunk” or (worse still from a colonialist perspective) to “myth bust” pseudoarchaeology. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean we need to accept it when it is racist, colonialist, or otherwise problematic. Instead, I would rather we acknowledge the problematic origins of all archaeologies in colonialist, nationalist, and racist practices. By foregrounding our shared responsibility to decolonize our field and to encourage anti-racist and diverse voices, we create ways to for pseudoarchaeology and archaeology to move forward together.

A simple way to do this in the most recent dust up surrounding Graham Hancock’s Netflix series is to acknowledge that some of Hancock’s claims have racist origins, but also recognize the positive and negative impact of these claims have on BIPOC communities, scholars, and ways of thinking about our contested pasts. Tracing the influence of many of pseudoarchaeological claims concern Atlantis through our popular culture, through esoteric practices and beliefs, and through alternative archaeologies that have received (perhaps begrudgingly) disciplinary recognition, allows us to situate pseudoarchaeology in the same carefully understood cultural context as we might indigenous knowledge or the kind of local knowledge encountered and respected on a regular basis during archaeological field work.  

5. Use pseudoarchaeology to expand our community. In other words, use pseudoarchaeology to expand our community. Rather than using it as a way for us to express our own disciplinary anxieties and to support a misguided effort to enforce disciplinary purity, perhaps we can encourage pseudoarchaeologists to be more inclusive, diverse, and socially responsible. We could even show them how they can preserve their esoteric and conspiratorial approaches to understanding the past in way that encourage anti-racist and anti-colonial causes. 

Of course, pseudoarchaeologists might just say “no thanks” to our support, but by opening the big tent to some of their ideas, we create the possibility of dialogue. 

Music Monday: Charles Lloyd, Zakir Hussain, and Thanksgiving Music

This week is a great music week for me. I usually take Thanksgiving to do a deep dive into a recording or an artist. I don’t necessarily have anything planned right now (although I have some ideas, which I’ll share at the end of this post).

In the meantime, I was pretty excited to listen to the entire trilogy of Charles Lloyd’s “Trios” project on Sunday morning. Charles Lloyd is a long-time favorite in our household in part because his recorded output produced over a half-century of work embodies such a wide range of moods, styles, instruments, and situations. Friday saw the release of the final of the three “Trios” album which he had released over the course of this year. Sacred Thread features Lloyd alongside Zakir Hussain and Julian Lage. The other two albums, Ocean (feat. Gerald Clayton and Anthony Wilson) and Chapel (feat. Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan) are gorgeous and at times stirring meditations, but Sacred Thread to me feels the most special and the most spiritually moving.

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While Lloyd’s and Lage’s playing is consistently good and gently provocative, Hussain’s tabla and vocals just do it for me. They create a new sense of space and texture for Lloyd and Lage to work. More than that, Hussain’s contribution reminded me of his earlier collaboration with Lloyd, the joyous and otherworldly Sangam (2006). If I could share this album with you, I would, but I can’t find a sharable copy (it’s from ECM so it’s available on most streaming services).

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(To quick confessions: I am not a world music guy really. So perhaps the relative exoticism of Hussain’s ethereal vocals and tabla is what moved me. I’ll also admit that Bill Frisell’s guitar does nothing for me.)

I made a playlist of the trilogy of Trios and look forward to listening to them this winter.

As for my Thanksgiving listening, I have some thinking to do. I realize that at some point in the past, playing the entire Atlantic catalogue pushed my partner’s patience with improvised music. So I probably can’t listen to Albert Ayler’s Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings (2022). Last Thanksgiving, I listened to the entire recording of Lee Morgan’s Live at the Lighthouse sessions (with commentary). That was a bit more appreciated. 

I’m thinking perhaps that I should listen to Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings (2000)? It’s a solid 7 hours of quality music! I could also be tempted to take a might swing through William Parker’s epic, Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World (2020).