Resilience in Antiquity

There have been a few articles recently on resilience in the ancient world (e.g. here, herehere, et c.) and considering the looming social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus, this work feels particularly timely.

Last week, the new volume of Studies in Late Antiquity appeared and it included an article by Tamara Lewitt titled “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity: Applying the Lens of Community Resilience Theory.” It offered a particularly clear application of community resilience theory to the Late Roman world as a way to understand why some areas rebounded from the disruptions of the 6th centuries. Historically, historians and archaeologists have argued that the plagues, earthquakes, military activities, political and theological instability during the 6th century had a lasting social and economic on Eastern Mediterranean communities. More recently, however, archaeologists, in particular, have shown how communities not only survived these difficult times, but prospered. 

In some ways, an emphasis on community resilience is a useful response to scholars who have increasingly sought to understand large scale changes in the Late Roman world as shaped by non-human actors such as disease and climate and environmental change. A number of recent articles have sought to re-assert the role of human agents in Late Antique. I tend to find this line of argument vaguely misguided, but in the case of Lewitt’s article it offers a clear point of departure for her consideration of community resilience.

Lewitt argued that five things allowed for ancient communities to rebound for various disruptions: “high volume and diversity of economic activities, a degree of equitable distribution of income, effective routes of communication, the existence of social capital, and capacity for cooperation and technological innovation.”

She then draws upon archaeological data to demonstrate how the most resilience communities shared many of these features. Of particular interest to me was the role of the church which not only served as a nodes in larger communication networks, but also as institutions around which social capital accumulates. Lewitt suggests that the bonds created through shared support of the local church, for example, created pathways to pool resources during times of crisis. As an contemporary example, she notes that the Vietnamese community in New Orleans rebuilt more quickly after Katrina because they relied on close social bonds.

Years ago, I was interested in how Christianity introduced new forms of giving. Unlike the elite euergetism that characterized Classical antiquity and relied upon the generosity of a few very wealthy patrons who competed with one another for status, the church promoted a model of charity that applied to all Christians and led to individuals of even modest means contributing to the construction and decoration of churches as well as to other charitable ventures. This new vision of charity would have undoubtedly led to new forms of social organization that may have led to greater community resilience.

The other interesting observation is that communities with greater economic equality tend to be more resilient than those with great divisions in wealth. Lewitt looks at the relative size of houses in the deserted villages in Syria to argue for social and economic equality in those communities. Once again, Lewitt notes that part of the challenges facing recovery in New Orleans was the deeply uneven distribution of wealth which made cooperation and collective action more difficult. It almost goes without saying that it is very difficult to track economic and social equality in the ancient world other than at the very ends of the spectrum. Moreover, it seems that villages and rural settlements, especially in Greece and Cyprus, seem to have been abandoned whereas urban areas proved more resilient. If we understand smaller rural communities to have less social and economic diversity, then we might expect these communities to be more resilient than the evidence tends to indicate. That being said, this is not fatal to Lewitt’s arguments, but it does beg for an explanation for why certain kinds of resilience ultimately failed. 

It is interesting to see how this plays out around the world as we attempt to recover from the economic and human impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Lewitt’s regular appeals to data from the recovery after Hurricane Katrina provide a modern point of comparison for resilience in antiquity. The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will provide another. 

Upton Sinclair’s Oil and John Sayles’s Yellow Earth

It took me a while to figure it out, but now that I’ve (finally) finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, my understanding of John Sayles’s novel Yellow Earth is much better. 

For folks who lack the Wikipedias, Oil! was published in 1926-1927 and today is perhaps more famous for controversy surrounding a rather chaste sex scene which got the book banned in some cities than its plot or its message. The book loosely follows the life of Bunny Arnold who is the son of an increasingly wealthy oilman in California. It is set against the backdrop of the early-20th century oil boom in Southern California and the  corruption, exploitation, radicalism, and glamour of early 20th century America.  Over the course of the book Bunny grows up and become more and more “woke” through his interaction with workers in the California oil fields, his university education, and his friendship with Paul Watkins, a labor organizer and eventual communist. Despite Bunny’s wealth, he becomes a radical social justice warrior who by the end of the book dedicates his life and what’s left of his father’s fortune to the founding of a socialist labor college.  

The charm of the book largely comes from the characters that conform to the rigid stereotypes. The corrupt businessmen are rabidly corrupt; the beautiful actresses are extraordinarily beautiful; the pious and idealistic communists, socialists, and labor union organizers are delightfully rigorous. Even when Sinclair draws on real characters he manages to preserve a sense of satire which is nowhere more visible as in his thinly veiled depiction of “Sister Amee” in the character of hypocritical evangelist Eli Watkins. A gently fictionalized reference to the Teapot Dome scandal offers another historical anchor for the novel.

Sinclair’s satirical novel leans upon these stereotypes as a way to critique both capitalists and radicals alike. Yellow Earth is its sequel. Like Oil!Yellow Earth similarly relies on a cast of stereotypical characters whose interactions are anchored loosing in a muder-for-hire scandal surrounding Tex Hall, one time chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil patch who encouraged oil development on reservation lands. In fact, on my first read, I was not a little offended by Sayles’s cartoonish depictions of Native Americans, Bakken oil workers, opportunistic grifters and the like.

A series of oblique references to Sinclair’s Oil! however makes Sayles intent clear. Bunny Skiles, for example, is the scheming con-man Brent Skiles’s wife. At the end of the novel she boards a train headed for Southern California to meet with a lawyer not only to arrange for a divorce from the steroid-raging Skiles, but also to secure her share of his is assets. Undoubtedly this lawyer is the same individual who represented the Arnold family after the death of the patriarch at the end of Oil! Other references abound. Brent Skiles, for example, is clearly a reference to the shadowy Ben Skutt who in Oil! who helped the oil companies break strikes by infiltrating unions, inciting violence, and, at one point, pretending to be a communist in order to have the unions declared illegal. Similarly the real estate agent J.C. Hardacre in Oil! Reappears as the petroleum geologist Randy Hardacre in Yellow Earth. In one of the more painful efforts to connect the two books, the exotic dancer with a good heart Jewelle alludes to the Jewish radical Rachel Menzies who Bunny marries toward the end of Oil! The characters do not map neatly onto one another, of course, but enough cross references exist to make clear that two books are in dialogue with one another.

Sayles replaces the loping, leisurely pace of Oil! with the frantic, compressed time of the Bakken oil boom. Yellow Earth takes place over just one year marked the pregnancy of Fawn over her senior year in high school. Sayles swaps out the painfully earnest radicalism of Paul Watkins for the Ayn Rand and steroid-fueled hyper capitalism of Brent Skiles. Some of the power of Yellow Earth comes not through the story and characters but as a commentary on how far the Bakken oil boom and our 21st century attitudes toward capital, profits, wealth, extractive industries, and speed have come from from the days of Sinclair’s Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s novel, where the lines between the radicals and the oil industry are drawn in blood and violence, Sayles blurs morality throughout Yellow Earth.  There are characters who appear to be good and characters who are undoubtedly evil, but they don’t align. There is no confrontation here and, as a result, no real resolution. As oil prices decline at the end of the boom, the profiteers get increasingly desperate and the characters who have come to make their money slowly disperse in search of the next opportunity.

It may be that by foregrounding this indeterminacy, driven as much by the complexities of the global oil market as the doings of any individual or the corruption of their business, Sayles’s work responds most clearly to Sinclair’s novel. Sinclair located his characters at the center of the oil industry and largely in control of their own fates. For Sayles, the characters in his novel wrestle as much with the oil itself and the vagaries of a global market as they did one another. There is a constant sense of the Bakken as periphery and no matter how much Ayn Rand Brent Skiles read and despite Harleigh Killdeer’s claims of “sovereignty by the barrel” the oil itself controlled the outcome of events. 

Leia Nilsson is a wildlife biologist in Yellow Earth, who has come to study a prairie dog coterie. She gives the critters classical names: Odysseus, Ajax, Niobe, Hera. A drilling platform ultimately displaces this little community of prairie dogs and Leia contracts Jett to suck the rodents from their burrows so she can relocate them across the road. Despite this displacement, the prairie dogs continue to play out their daily lives, struggle with one another for dominance, and mate. Even the most superficial reader will catch that the story of the prairie dogs is the story of Yellow Earth. The prairie dogs might, at best, be the Watkins family in Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s Watkins family, who find their own way and ultimately negotiate their own fate against the backdrop of capitalism, oil, and world events, Sayles’s prairie dogs and characters are simply actors on a stage for whom choice only appears to matter. 

Teaching Tuesday: Strategies in Studenting

One of the challenges that my students will face over the next month or so is adapting to new expectations for their classes, which are now online rather than face-to-face. This often means dealing with faculty who are, frankly, more likely to be stressed and unfamiliar with online teaching than our students. More than that, since students are not on campus they’re dealing with a whole raft of other challenges from online access to finding room, food, and employment. Students might also lack access to their usual academic and personal support networks.  

All this means that our students will have to make calculated decisions about their academic progress in a time when everything is crazy, chaotic, and unprecedented. My sense is that this decision making is particularly challenging for first-generation students, students who come from less rigorous academic backgrounds, and students who already struggle to balance opportunities and risks in their day-to-day course work.

The proximate challenge for many students right now is whether to move a class to “pass/fail” grading. At the University of North Dakota, they’ll be allowed to change any class to P/F as late as reading and review day (May 8th). They will be able to do this for classes in their major and as Freshmen.

I’m going to do two things to attempt that adapt to this change: 

First, I’m going to make sure that most graded work is returned to students by April 28th, giving them plenty of time to make an informed decision on whether to shift a class to P/F.

Second, I’m going to present students with a clear set of options that allow them to make a decision as early as possible on whether to shift to P/F rather than waiting until the end of class.  

Here are those guidelines:

1. The class was originally divided into three modules covering Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages. I’m canceling the final module which was scheduled to run from April 14-May 5. 

2. All work associated with the Greek and Roman sections of the class is due by April 21st. I will have grades posted by April 28th.

3. If you want to take the class P/F. If you have a passing grade on April 28th, you can switch the class to P/F and receive a passing mark. No other work is required. 

4. If you want to take the course for a letter grade, then you need to write the primary source paper as it was originally stated on the syllabus. This paper is due May 8th, but I’ll read drafts submitted by April 28th and return them no later than May 4th.


The goal of being deliberate about this is allowing students to make decisions about whether to move from a letter grade to Pass/Fail as early in the process as possible. This, ideally, nudges students toward thinking strategically by giving them as much information as possible upon which to base their decision while also encouraging them to be pro-active rather than re-active. 

The Next Chapter: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

This week I’m going to try to start to write the next chapter in my little book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. You can check out my first three chapters here. This chapter will survey on media archaeology, archaeogaming, and digital archaeology. I’m pretty far outside my comfort zone on the first two areas, but, as I blogged about last week, I have some good guides.

My current preoccupation is how to make my chapter have some flow. The previous chapter of the book deals with “Things, Materiality, and Agency” and to continue along these line, I think that I’ll start this chapter by attempting to define media archaeology This is not entirely simple because it is as much a method for approaching the place of media in contemporary society and communications theory as a clearly defined (sub)discipline. In the context of media archaeology, the term “archaeology” draws not as much on the the practices associated with the disciplinary practice of archaeological work, but on Foucault’s use of the term to describe the unconscious rules that govern systems of knowledge which he developed in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). In other words, “media archaeology” need not have anything to do with the material culture of media studies, but rather with the metaphor of excavation below the surface of conscious practice. 

At the same time, the “German School” of media archaeology, characterized by the work of Friedrich Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst, came to emphasize the key role that the materiality and technology played in communication practices. In fact, Kittler famously noted that our media shape how we view the world from our dreams, our memories, and our feelings. This line of argument is not unfamiliar to archaeologists who have long recognized that archaeology is a mediated discipline that relies on a range of media practices – from texts, pen and pencil drawings, photography, and, more recently, video and 3D visualizations, to translate physical relationships into arguments for the past. In a broader sense, the rapid diversification of media technologies and their ubiquity in the modern society has made it all the more important that we understand the impact of media technologies on the contemporary world. As a result, understanding the physical characteristics of media as well as their ability to regulate the body, create sensation, and produce knowledge plays a key role in unpacking our experience of the contemporary world.

Media archaeology also has emphasized matters of time and temporality. This not only involves the practical aspects of living and “dead media” but also the ability of media to manipulate time in new ways. Digital media has made it simple to create new expression by mashing up old and new images, we can slow the passage of time by slowing media down or speeding it up, and we can even combine old and new technologies to create hybrids that complicate and defy linear narratives of progress. The emergence of “steampunk” and “cyberpunk” genres of fiction, for example, likewise offer critiques of progress and, by extension, consumerist expectations of innovation. The steampunk aesthetic developed by authors such as Bruce Sterling and Phillip Reeves, explicitly combines the old and new technologies to create hybrid forms that exist outside of time and trajectories of progress. The “cyberpunk” genre of fiction pioneered by William Gibson takes place in a futuristic, media-rich universe that his characters negotiate through a series of do-it-yourself practices meant to subvert a dystopian society structured around rampant consumerism and enhanced methods of control.  As Shannon Lee Dawdy has noted in her article “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity” (2010) the critiques of progress, capital, and consumer culture present in these authors has useful parallels with Walter Benjamin’s critique of the culture of consumption in the decaying shopping Arcades of Paris.

Scholars like Jussi Parikka has extended media archaeology to include the critical attention to the materiality of digital devices. By looking at the Geology of Media, he connects the discourse of the media to the slow, grinding time of geology and deep temporalities that continue to shape contemporary practices. At the same time, he refers literally to geology by demonstrating how digital devices rely upon mineral and metals from around the world to perform their functions. Jennifer Gabrys’s and Joshua Lepawsky’s recent books consider and critique the course of digital trash and e-waste as our media technologies continue to circle the globe, are reused, and reenter geological contexts long after narratives of progress and innovation declares them obsolete. This intermingling of the mineralogical, metallic, and material contents of devices, the slow geological time of media, and the recursive routes of objects from the consumer, into reuse and recycling, and eventually back into the ground as discard creates a kind of multitemporal surface similar to that encountered by survey archaeologists where artifacts dating to multiple periods commingle. 

The dense networks of things, places, and individuals which constitute digital media allow us a position to return to Michael Schiffer’s 1991 book on the portable transistor radio and see it more than a revisionist case study for national narratives of innovation, but opportunities to understand how media technologies and practices created and relied upon complex networks of relationships that functioned on a global scale. In this context, media archaeology whether stressing the material aspects of media or their role in contemporary communications practices, locate the American experience within much broader geographic context than defined by national boundaries. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Time passes strangely in these days of COVID-19. No sports to absorb surplus time. No face-to-face conversations with students and colleagues. No bustling restaurant meals and interrupted conversations with bartenders. 

For us, here in Grand Forks County, North Dakota, things could be much worse. There are still no reported cases here and the empty streets seem to suggest that people are taking calls to stay at home seriously.

For my friends in more challenging locations, please stay safe, healthy, and at home. 

And, if it helps, here’s a little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

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Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience: Three Chapters

A couple of years ago, I watched one of buddies here at the University of North Dakota write his book. When he completed a chapter draft, he dutifully hung it by a binder clip on a bookshelf in his office. This gave him a nice visual reminder that he was making progress toward his goal. 

I’ve struggled a bit to embrace this feeling of progress with any project lately. The COVID-19 situation hasn’t helped, but even before then, I felt a bit like I was stuck on a treadmill writing the same thing over and over just using different words. I suppose this is part of what happens when the desire to write exceeds the time, space, or ability to produce ideas. In any event, in place of an impressive display of dangling chapters, I’ll post chapters here to my blog from time to time. 

In any event, I have completed three chapters of a book that I’m writing titledThe Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience.These are very, very rough drafts. The citations are not entirely complete (I work up this morning feeling vaguely anxious for not having cited Paul Mullins’s work in Chapter 2 and 3!) and they’re about 1000 words shorter than they’ll be when they’re folded together to make a coherent(-ish) book. This also includes working on transitions between the chapters and filling out the references. There are also new books and articles on many of the things that I discuss in these two chapters appearing all the time (and a few books are still en route via ILL). 

You can read a very rough outline of my book proposal here. The book is about 60% survey and 40% a cultural and methodological study of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. As a result, a significant part of the book will tend toward the descriptive. My hope is that the 40% of the book where I try to do some cultural history isn’t so far off the mark (or so mundane) to be uninteresting or, worse still, produce an archaeology that is merely illustrating well-known history from texts.  

I’ve completed a draft of the introduction (or Chapter 0) and the second chapter on Garbology (Chapter 2). The case study based on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation should be pretty easy to write and since this chapter and the one on my work with the North Dakota Man Camp project in the Bakken are “anchor chapters,” I’ll write these last. I also plan to write some kind of mini-chapter which connects the first part of the book to the second based on my work with the Wesley College Documentation Project.  

Here are the two of the first three chapters:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

As always, if you have observations, constructive criticism, or just unmitigated hatred of everything that I’m doing here, please do let me know!

North Dakota Quarterly 87.1/2 Covers!

It goes without saying that there are very few reasons to celebrate these days, but over at North Dakota Quarterly our publication workflow has started to adapt to the challenge of COVID-19, we are getting back on schedule for the publication of issue, 87.1/2.   

That means, if you’re a contributor, check your email for page proofs this week, and if you’re a subscriber, we hope to have the issues out to you as soon as we can!

In the meantime, check out these possible covers all of which feature Todd Hebert’s work Bubble, 2019. Which is your favorite?

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NDQ 87 1 2 cover 2

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Teaching Tuesday: Pandemic Papers

Last week was spring break and this week is my first full fledge foray into pandemic pedagogy. Fortunately, I’ve had about 20+ years of experience teaching online and one of my two classes already used hybrid methods. This is an introductory level Western Civilization class which draws on many of the techniques that I developed teaching in a large Scale-Up style classroom. You can read about the Scale-Up class here and my current class here.

Unfortunately, one of my two classes was designed to use our local archives and to emphasize hands-on directed research. This class will have to pivot. You can read about that class here. I’ll blog on that class sometime later this week.

As for my introductory level Western Civilization class, I’ve stated to think a bit about how to incorporate the pandemic into my pedagogy. There are a good many recent pieces that offer resources useful for thinking about the pandemic from this very recent Atlantic article to this collection of archival material on epidemics in Early America or this Yale class.

My class spends a good bit of time working back and forth between primary and secondary sources. So I’ve concocted a couple of papers that ask students to think about the pandemic. These are optional and, I’ll admit, not particularly good paper prompts, but considering the circumstances they might just work. 

Pandemic Primary Source Papers

In Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, contagious disease was always a matter for concern especially when combined with war, famine, or other social, political, or economic disruptions.

Primary Source Paper 1

Two of the most famous episodes of famine in antiquity occurred in 5th century BC Athens, when the Athenians had huddled within their protective walls and the Spartans were ravaging the countryside, and in the 6th century AD, under the reign of the Emperor Justinian. The historians Thucydides and Procopius describe the plagues here.

Compare these two descriptions and consider how these two texts are similar and differ. What do their similarities and differences tell us about the times in which they were written? Are they more similar or different? How do these texts speak to our current situation?

Primary Source Paper 2

Chaucer and Boccaccio are two of the most original voices of the tumultuous 14th and 15th century. Both writers features the Black Death as the backdrop for more wide-reaching social commentary. Read Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” and the short excerpts from Boccaccio’s Decameron (both available in Chapter 12 of the Western Civilization Reader on the books page of the class!) and consider the changes that took place in the 14th and 15th centuries. Using specific examples from Chaucer and Boccaccio, consider how both authors use the Black Death to criticize and comment on their contemporary society. How do these texts speak to our current situation?


My general feeling is that universities are so conservative that they require massive, society-wide, shocks to their system in order to adapt. I suspect that the current situation which is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, will be exactly what the modern university needs to pivot to align more with our changing world. How we do this will be the focus of the next few years. Pandemic proofing instruction, advising, and research will be central to any preparedness model in higher education. 

(W)Reading Week for Social Distancing

I feel like my comfortable and predictable teaching-writing-reading has been quite upset lately. First, there was spring break, now there’s this move to online teaching, and finally, there’s the uncertainty of what will come next. It’s almost certain that my early summer field plans are cancelled, my later summer plans are in limbo, and various other local fieldwork projects remain in the balance.

In light of all, this and as a deeply personal effort to seize control of my life in some way, I’ve declared this week a “reading week.” The hope is get on top of a few reading projects and set myself up to write the final chapter of the first part of slowly developing first part of a book that I’m trying to write on archaeology of contemporary American culture. This chapter will focus on three things:

1. Materiality and Media Archaeology.
2. Archaeogaming.
3. The Archaeology of Digital Archaeology. 

As you might gather from reading this blog, the second and third parts of this chapter will be rather easier to write than the first. At the same time, the first part of this chapter will allow me to segue neatly with my previous chapter on “Things, Materiality, and Agency.” (I’ll post a rough draft of this chapter later in the week). To get there, though, I need to sharpen my understanding of the major currents in media archaeology. To start, I’ll re-read the useful forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology on media archaeology and make my way through Jussi Parikka’s useful survey of media archaeology as well as his A Geology of Media (2015). I’m also going to read Jennifer Gabrys’ Digital Rubbish (2013), Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot edited volume Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (2014), Josh Lepawsky, Reassembling Rubbish: worlding electronic waste (2018) and Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter’s Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (2009). I’m also going to push myself to read two novels. First, Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials (2008) and, then, Thomas Pynchon’s The Bleeding Edge (2013). We’ll see how this all goes. I’ve tried to be ambitious before and it ended up a total failure.

The rest of the chapter feels – for now – a bit more straightforward. I’ll lean mightily on Andrew Reinhard’s book Archaeogaming (2018) for the middle section of the chapter and the usual suspect for a critical engagement with digital archaeology that considers both its materiality and the way in which digital media and tools have come to shape archaeological practices. 

It’s been a very long time since I’ve taken a week or so just to read and while I’m as horrified and terrified by the swelling number of coronavirus cases both in my community and around the world, I wonder whether immersion in something other than problems beyond my control will be therapeutic. It goes without saying that I will continue to work to transition my classes to online, work to revise a few papers that have re-appeared after a time in the wilderness, and keep nudging various longstanding projects forward (e.g. NDQ, various books with The Digital Press, and some curriculum initiatives). At the same, taking a break from writing and, instead, invest in something that has a more tangible conclusion like reading a book.  

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

It’s still winter here in North Dakotaland, which I suppose is good because it keeps people from going out and spreading COVID-19. It also helped me stay focused on the stack of books begging to be read and the need to find effective and interesting ways to move my classes online. The entire experience so far has been a bit surreal. 

To make it more real, The Digital Press moved up the release of their latest book: DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean edited by Sebastian Heath. While hardly a how-to guide, it provides some practical and critical reflections on cutting edge teaching on the ancient Mediterranean. As always, it’s free and open access to download.  

That being said, the internet has not stopped, so I can offer some quick hits and varia:

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