Writing Ra for Real 2

This week I’ve been working on my article on Sun Ra and archaeology with the goal of having a completed draft to submit somewhere by the end of the month. It is tentatively titled “Not All Ancient Aliens,” and I posted the first part of the paper on Monday and you can read it here.

It was supposed to be a pretty breezy article that was anchored in a playful (or at least puckish) critique of certain kinds of public archaeology which began with a pair of longwinded responses to a twitter dust up a few weeks ago. You can check out that bloated bloviation here and here

I’m hoping to write some kind of conclusion to this so that it is at least a single cohesive “thing” (which for me is slightly below the level of a manuscript) and maybe circulate it to some readers this fall. It obviously lacks full citation, but that’s in the works too!

“Not All Ancient Aliens” (con’t)

Sun Ra’s efforts to tie together the space age with ancient Egypt represents a distinctive view on the role of ancient (and contemporary) extraterrestrials on our understanding of the past. As a number of critics have observed, however, Ra is not unique in conflating his experience of alien abduction with Biblical narratives especially those relating to Elijah’s chariot and Ezekiel’s celestial vision. Indeed, Graham Locke connected Sun Ra’s abduction narrative to the conversion narratives told by enslaved people in the American South. These narratives frequently involved hearing voices, traveling to celestial destinations by chariot, and a sense of spiritual liberation (Locke 1999: 52-57). The conversion stories of enslave people often served as an image for their own liberation from weight of sin, oppressive circumstances, and, at times, from slavery itself. Elijah’s chariot carried the converted from the painful circumstances of Earthly existence to their divine reward. Henry Blount adapted these narratives and his conversion to Sun Ra to the space age when he replaced Elijah’s chariot with intergalactic travel and voice of God with those of alien visitors. As William Sites noticed that during Sun Ra’s days in Chicago, he interlaced imagery of interplanetary travel with that of Chicago’s EL and adapted the familiar call of the EL conductor announcing stations to interplanetary destinations. As the concluding chant in a Chicago-period recording of his track “Rocket Number 9” announces: ”next stop, Venus!” Sites argued that conflating dreams of interstellar travel with the more mundane experience of riding the El translated the Arkestra’s hopes for interstellar liberation onto the topography of Chicago. Trips to distant planets become trips to the predominantly white middle class suburbs that held out the promise of both racially integrated housing as well as home ownership with the modern amenities promised in Chicago’s new subdivisions.

More powerfully still, the image of spaceship in Ra’s abduction story, in his music, and in his film Space is the Place, appropriated the memory of the slaveship and transformed it from being a vehicle of Black subjugation, to an image of Black liberation and freedom. In the case of Space is the Place, this connection is quite literal as the Sun Ra pilots a spaceship to Earth to rescue its Black population. This conflation of the spaceship and the slaveship takes on even more powerful overtones when Sun Ra combines it with Egyptian and other Afrocentric imagery. In this context, the spaceship becomes a vehicle that can not only open the solar system to Black exploration, but also restore Black people to a legacy which is both celestial and African. Ra’s efforts to connect African culture to extraterrestrial intervention works to bridge the gap between the potential of the space age present (and future) and a pre-enslavement past. His concept of an “Astro Black Mythology” links Blackness to outer space and the timelessness of both myth and the cosmos.

While there might be a tendency to see Sun Ra’s cosmology as it unfolds over his music, performances, and writing, as a kind of utopian fiction, it is important to recognize that connection between space, Biblical narratives, and mythic and historical Black pasts appears in other mid-century contexts as well. For example, it is tempting to see the rings of Saturn as a version of Ezekiel’s wheel tamed by modern astronomy. This allowed Ra to encounter the dreadful power of the heavens and recognize it as benign. Michael Leib’s work on the changing role of Ezekiel’s vision in modern world stressed the role that it played in the eschatology of the Nation of Islam (Leib 1998). The coincidence of Elijah Muhammed’s organization in Chicago during Sun Ra’s tenure apparently led to some interaction between Sun Ra and Nation of Islam members in Washington Park. Paul Youngquist’s reconstruction of these encounters, based apparently on reminiscences of Sun Ra, suggest that these interactions involved debates about cosmology and society and involved mutual respect. Elijah Muhammed took Ezekiel’s great wheeled apparition in the sky and transformed it into a spaceship that would arrive at the end of days. This shapeship represented part of Elijah Muhammed’s view that the Nation of Islam developed from a scientific understanding of reality (Curtis 2016). He promoted his distinctive form of good scientific knowledge produced by Allah and revealing both the best way to live on Earth and a vision of the divine that was not beholden to metaphysics. This profoundly material view of human existence and divinity extended to a literal view of end time and transformed the dreadful vision of Ezekiel into a real spaceship, called the Mother Plane, invented by Allah, and piloted by sentient beings. The spaceship’s mission on Earth was to fire bombs which would kill white people and lead Black believers to a new life. The parallels between Elijah Muhammed’s vision of the Mother Plane and Sun Ra’s visions of spaceships are not precise, but they are sufficiently similar with their Biblical roots and modern inflection to suggest that Ra’s view of interstellar beings shaping both the past and future of Black existence is not the idiosyncratic musings of a modern Menocchio.

Moreover, Sun Ra’s conflation of Egypt with the pan-African origins of Blackness, reflected long-standing notions of Afrocentrism that continued to enjoy prominence in the mid-20th century. While archaeologists and historians have viewed much of this work as problematic, it nevertheless represented a significant tradition in Black thought that continues to have a foothold in both popular and academic works (Howe 1999). As Sun Ra’s album Atlantis demonstrated, New York, the Black Arts Movement, and radical voices such as Amiri Baraka formed an important backdrop to Sun Ra’s view of a transnational Black identity. Baraka, in particular, remained an important collaborator and support of Sun Ra and while Ra rarely spoke explicitly about his political commitments, Baraka vocally championed various Pan-African and Black nationalist programs throughout the 1960s and 1970s (Simanga 2015). Sun Ra’s relationship with Baraka crystalized during his time in New York, where Baraka published some of Sun Ra’s work both in his magazine The Cricket and in Black Fire the influential anthology that he edited with Larry Neal in 1968. The Arkestra also performed for Amiri Baraka’s play Black Mass in 1966, which explicitly combined ideas of racial history present in the Nation of Islam and Sun Ra’s cosmic themes, including his well-known track “Satellites are Spinning” (Szwed 2000: 211-212). Baraka also offered what might be best-known eulogy for Sun Ra after his death in 1993. Even when the Arkestra departed New York for Philadelphia, where the Arkestra made its home from the late 1960s until today, Sun Ra frequented the museum at the University of Pennsylvania and the library at Temple University which emerged as an important American center for Afrocentric thought in the US and through its outlet the Journal of Black Studies (Howe 1999:xxxx).

For archaeologists, this reading of Sun Ra offer a lens for understanding how Black views of extraterrestrials allowed certain thinkers to blur the division between the past, present, and future. This had particular significance in an African American context. Paul Gilroy adapts W.E.B. Dubois’s notion of the “double consciousness” to argue that in the Black Atlantic, Black people continue to renegotiate the tensions of being both European and Black (Gilroy 1993). This tension is manifest in some ways within the disciplines of archaeology and history as certain groups lacked indigenous or national status deriving from a putative premodern existence, especially in a North American context, and have also stood outside the normative, white, male, elite, European standard of being modern. In this way, certain discursive limits within our disciplines reified the dislocation of the Middle Passage, the period of enslavement, and, even the Great Migration of urban and rural Blacks to the north by excluding them from paradigms that anchored identity in a persistent past capable of sustaining the weight of progress. Sun Ra and other Black thinkers, however, turned this exclusion on its head by conflating the past, present, and future into explicit, if fanciful, new identities that likewise defied the modern notion of place by merging an ahistorical Egyptianized Africa with an extraterrestrial existence. Sun Ra explicitly admits that his relationship with time itself is simple or not unproblematic. Without adherence to modern concepts of time and place, comparative measures of progress from some kind of essentialized place of origin falter. An Egyptianizing astronaut piloting a spaceship destined to transport Black people to a new world become possible as part of a “Astro Black Mythology.” These are not efforts to revise or critique archaeological or historical discourses. Moreover, Sun Ra’s ideas do not represent a pseudo-archaeology that derives authority from forensic similarities to academic or professional archaeology. Instead he offers a far more radical alternative.

Some Thoughts the Digital Tsunami

This weekend, I read with some excitement the forum in Antiquity following John Aycock’s thought-provoking article titled “The Coming Tsunami of Digital Artifacts.” The is the key text in a short debate section that features papers by Sarah and Eric Kansa, Colleen Morgan, and Jeremey Huggett. In other words, some of my favorite scholars in the field of digital archaeology. All their response are short and you should go and read them if it sounds interesting.

The gist of Aycock’s argument is that archaeologists have to do more to understand the world of digital artifacts if they want to be able to continue to apply archaeology to contemporary problems and objects. This is almost certainly true, although Aycock’s claim that archaeologists must become more digital literate and find ways to collaborate with computer scientists if they want to remain relevant is probably an overstatement. After all, most of human history did not involve digital technology and so knowing code, for example, may not necessarily change how we interrupt, say, Early Christian basilicas in Greece. 

That all said, the article did prompt me to think about how archaeologists make knowledge. On the one hand, Aycock is right that in many cases, archaeologists want to understand objects as thoroughly as possible. In most cases, efforts to extract as much data for an object, situation, context, or landscape involves a collaboration between as many specialists as possible. For a project devoted to a digital object, landscape, or context, then it seems like that a computer scientist might be part of the collaboration. 

On the other hand, I suspect that computer scientists also need archaeologists and experts on materiality as well. The detailed studies of video game machines and their context by Raiford Guins’s Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) and Michael Z. Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT 2017) offered insights into the complex lives of games and game consoles both in the home and as objects that saw use, maintenance, and repair. Newman showed that the physical forms of gaming consoles, as an example, from their faux wood paneling to their low profile designs served to adapt them to middle-class domestic standards and to make space for masculine video game playing in less more feminine space of the home interior. Guins traced the evidence for game playing rituals, from the wear marks that show where spectators would hang on or rub against the game machine while watching another player. More than that Guins traced the challenges with repairing CRT monitors and circuit boards for games that are no longer manufactured. In any event, these are two easy examples of how we can still learn a good bit from the materiality of video games and this could productively inform how we understand the code of the digital artifacts that these machines embody. 

Aycock’s article and the notion of “D Transforms” introduced in the response by Sarah and Eric Kansa also got me wondering about the stability of digital objects. It is obvious that digital objects can survive outside of their primary cultural, material, or archaeology context. But it equally obvious that files become corrupted by either digital or material failures. These corruptions can be as spectacular as glitch art or as gut wrenching as lost data and hardware crashes. The interplay between hardware and software can likewise be incredibly ephemeral, as Andrew Reinhard has pointed out, and even an incredibly detailed understanding of code will not always make the material object easier to understand (and vice versa). The notion of “D transforms” feels like brilliant way to grasp our encounters with digital objects in their material, temporal, and social (political, economic, and broadly cultural) context.

While much of this goes without saying, the conversation did get me thinking back to my dissertation. One of the challenges that I faced with my dissertation is that all that we had left behind was the “hardware” for the rise of Christianity in Greece. We had very few textual sources and almost no sources for the ritual life of the Early Christian basilica-style churches that I studied. It seemed to me that the liturgy that took places in these buildings served as kind of software that made its architectural form work for the Christian community. Despite its absence, archaeologists have nevertheless worked out, to some extent, how the software of these buildings worked. In fact, this is what archaeologists tend to be pretty good at doing.

In the end, Aycock is right, of course, archaeology of the contemporary world would do well to collaborate with computer scientists especially when dealing with the complex interplay between digital objects and their material forms. At the same time, because the digital is no less fragile and dependent on context than the material, I think it’s safe to say that archaeologists will do just fine negotiating the material even when the digital remains beyond our grasp.

Writing Ra for Real

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a project that considers how the idiosyncratic musician, intellectual, writer, and visionary, Sun Ra fits into the our understanding of both popular and academic archaeology. It’s a weird and rambling and emergent project that tries to make sense of my interests and my eclectic reading.

For most of the last year or so, I was a lost project, wandering around in some blog posts, reading notes, and play lists. This last month, however, the little dust up between Flint Dibble and the directors of a new documentary on Atlantis gave my work some new life. Here are two blog posts that I wrote in response to the Dibble Dust Up: here and here. You’ll notice some recycling (and some revision on a factual level) in what I’ve written below, but this just shows you how the sausage is made.

Here’s the first 2500 words or so of what I’m working on. I’m not sure what this will be exactly, but more and more I think my goal is to recover the stories of ancient alien visitors from the “enormous condescension” of academic archaeologists. 

Working Title: Not All Ancient Aliens

In 1971 Sun Ra arrived in Egypt for the first time. This is not an early example of the repatriation of some artifact looted in the colonial past nor is it a metonym for a future archaeological discovery. This Sun Ra was an American jazz musician, poet, philosopher, and filmmaker. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, by 1971, Le Sony’r Ra or Sun Ra, had already spent over 20 years developing his view of the Black past and future. During a brief time as a student at Alabama A&M, he experienced an alien visitation or abduction and visited Saturn where he had a meeting with a group of extraterrestrials and, at least in one account, given a vision of his own future (Szwed 2000: 29-30). This encounter initiated a transformation in Herman Blount’s life which led him to change his name to Le Sony’r Ra and to a successful career as a musician and band leader in Chicago, then New York, and finally Philadelphia. While he remains best known for his career as a jazz and avant-garde musician, recently scholars have turned their attention to his literary career which served to inform his larger than life personality and musical legacy. Sun Ra’s band, the Arkestra, melded flamboyant stage shows with free and avant-garde jazz, recordings and performances in which futuristic sounds conjured equally futuristic visions, and poetry, film, and public statements that appear to represent Egypt as the wellspring of global Black culture. At once committed to utopian Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism, Ra mid-century attempts to articulate a vision of a Black past combined the social and technological optimism of the post-war space age with long-standing efforts to imagine a Black past freed from the stains of colonialism and slavery.

The views of Sun Ra, and his fellow travelers, offer a distinct counterpoint to the recent spate of popular documentaries purporting to reveal hidden or suppressed archaeological knowledge. In many cases these documentaries, especially the History Channel’s Ancient Alien series, argue that contemporary archaeologists have overlooked evidence that extraterrestrials visited the Earth in ancient times and constructed monuments in Egypt, Central America, and elsewhere. According to these program, aliens may have contributed to the development of sophisticated technologies, science, and culture. In other cases, these programs revealed how archaeological sites unlocked profound mystical or spiritual truths or revealed previously unrecognized connections between cultures. In general, the claims made by these programs follow predictable trajectories and rely on a blend of real archaeology, conspiracy theories, flashy production values, and fuzzy conjectures (Turner and Turner 2021 for a recent survey of these ideas). More damning still, these programs often both rely upon and reinforce racist assumptions that various past societies, especially those that emerged in what is sometimes called the Global South, could not have developed technology or monumental structure without outside assistance. Many of the ideas trotted out on these programs rely on theories developed over the first half of the twentieth century and rejected by generations of archaeologists.

In the last decade, with the growth of social media, efforts to counter pseudo-archaeology and alternative archaeologist have redoubled. Some of this stems from a growing frustration with pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Archaeologists see this as related to the declining status of experts and higher education at a moment in history where the problems facing human society are not only complex, but also existential. Racial injustice, political and economic inequality, forced migration, and, most of all, climate change present a formidable slate of global challenges only exacerbated by the contemporary pandemic and the rise of conspiracy-driven anti-science. Archaeologists have seen nefarious consequences to the tendency for pseudo-archaeologists to simplify complex situations by offering monocausal explanations, such as the influence of ancient aliens, against a backdrop of often racist assumptions about the capacities of ancient people. Oddly enough, the eagerness to counter the most visible examples of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media has led to a tendency among professional and academic archaeologists to simplify some of the complex contexts where the idea that extraterrestrials introduced ancient technology or architecture developed. In particular, this paper will explore the appearance of alternative archaeologies and histories in mid-20th century Black culture with a particular emphasis on the work of Sun Ra. In some mid-century Black contexts, arguments for extraterrestrial interventions and other unorthodox imaginings of the Black past represented efforts to adapt traditional knowledge to the modern world, to subvert contemporary racist power structures, and to construct identities independent from the painful legacy of slavery and colonialism.

There is a growing realization among archaeologists that the discipline of archaeology has not served Black communities well. This has contributed to a sense of urgency behind calls to recognize the distinct character of a wide range of Black knowledge of the past as well as to reform archaeology as a discipline. In many cases, distinctive Black reinterpretations of the past developed alongside similar white understandings, but had fundamentally different goals. Ongoing efforts to suppress the spread of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media and on the internet, however, have often failed to recognize the diverse legacies of ideas associated with ancient extraterrestrial visitors and mystical homelands. These same ideas produced different legacies: in one context they lent support to racist and far right ideologies, and in another fueled utopian visions of racial justice and real gains in social, economic, cultural, and political power in Black communities. This article will excavate a test trench through the work of Sun Ra with the goal of sampling some of the roles that ancient aliens and the myth of Atlantis played in certain Black alternative archaeologies that emerged in the mid-20th century.

Sun Ra’s personal account of abduction by extraterrestrial did not produce an entirely consistent set of beliefs or understandings. It appears, however, at various times that he understood that ancient Egyptians were not only the wellspring of Black civilization, but that Black people and possible Black Egyptians were also extraterrestrials. This conflation of Afrocentrism and ancient aliens informed Ra’s onstage personal where he combined futuristic jazz and outfits that evoked both a pastiche of ancient Egyptian motifs and futuristic garb that hinted of space travel, UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. It seems certain that Ra developed his interest in the origins of Black society in Egypt, often called Afrocentrism, the work of authors such as George G.M. James, whose book Stolen Legacy: the Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians appeared in 1954, but who had taught at Alabama A&M for a time before Sun Ra’s arrival there as a student. James was not the only scholar making claims that Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern civilization, so privileged by white scholars, derived from Egyptian civilization, but his book appeared in Sun Ra’s library and was widely enough to read and republished to attract an attack from no less than Mary Lefkowitz some 40 years after its appearance. In late 1940s and 1950s Chicago, Sun Ra gathered around him a group of seekers who called themselves the Thmei Society and this group read voracious and discussed ideas found in works as varied as the 19th century anti-Catholic Alexander Hislip’s The Two Babylons, or Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship o f Nimrod and his Wife (1853), various diffusionist and hyperdiffusionist world views such as Grafton Elliot Smith’s The Ancient Egyptians and Their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe (1911) and Children of the Sun (1923) by his sometime collaborator W.J. Perry, and Albert Churchward, who wrote Origin and Evolution of the Human Race (1920) and whose brother would advocate for the lost continent of Mu in the Indian Ocean. Also present in his library were the works of E.A. Wallis Budge, William M. Ramsay, and James Henry Breasted as well as the mystical writings of Helena Blatavsky, Egar Cayce, and others who sought to reveal the undiscovered capacities of human intelligence from past cultures (Szwed 2000; Youngquist 2016). The Thmei Society produced a series of provocative broadsheets which they circulated in Chicago’s Washington Square Park where a cross section of the city’s Black community congregated to enjoy the outdoors, socialize, proselytize, and engage in debates (Sites 2019). In this space, Sun Ra and his Thmei Society colleagues would have had conversations with a wide range of groups including members of the Nation of Islam who frequented the park after their transfer of their headquarters from Detroit to Chicago in the late 1940s.

By the late 1950s, Sun Ra and his band, dubbed the Arkestra, had started to perform and record their unique form of interstellar jazz across the city. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 inaugurated the Space Age and drew the Ra’s alien abductors even closer to Earth By the early 1960s and Ra and the Arkestra’s relocation to New York City, where he and his band continued to work the probe the ambiguous origins of both Sun Ra himself and Black people. This was an incredibly active period for Sun Ra who not only continued to release music from his Chicago days, but also rehearsed, performed, and recorded almost continuously with the Arkestra. As a sample of significant albums released during the 1960s that demonstrate Sun Ra’s interest in both cosmic and mystical. For example, in 1966, tracks recorded in the late 1950s in Chicago were released as the Nubians of Plutonia in 1966. From 1961-1963, Sun Ra recorded albums such as Bad and Beautiful, Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, and When the Sun Comes Out which combine improvisational music inspired by cosmic themes often marked by electronic instruments with exotic percussion and instrumentation. The names of tracks likewise reveal a blend of Egyptian and cosmic inspiration: “Ankh,” “Solar Symbols,” “The Nile,” and “Infinity of the Universe.” This massively productive period in the Arkestra’s history culminated in their 1965 album Heliocentric World of Sun Ra, which many consider Sun Ra’s masterpiece and the most concise introduction to his distinctive form of cosmic jazz.

In 1969, a number of recording made toward the end of the decade were released as Atlantis. The B side consists of a 21-minute long track titled “Atlantis” that was recorded at Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Center of African Culture in New York. Olatunji was a Nigerian immigrant who came to the US for college and became immersed in the vibrant Black music and cultural scene in New York City while studying at NYU. His influential use of drumming and African rhythms had exerted a significant influence of Sun Ra’s use of percussion and, according to Szwed, the two musicians often exchanged band members. Olatunji was well known among New York jazz musicians and had performed with John Coltrane and influenced contemporary recordings of Archie Shepp (especially his album The Magic of Ju-Ju). Atlantis also witnessed one of Sun Ra’s most ambitious efforts to integrate electronic instruments, such as his famous “Solar Sound Organ” and the Clavinet into his recordings. The merging of the futuristic sounds of electronic instruments and the polyrhythmic African drums reflected Ra’s commitments to both Afrocentric views of the past and Afrofuturist views.

 It might come as some surprise, then, to learn that Sun Ra’s invocation of Atlantis likely derived, at least in part, from his reading of a wide range of pseudo-archaeological, pseudo-historical, theosophical, and mystical works on Atlantis.  This is not subtle. For example, track titles on this album evoked various visions of Atlantis: “Mu,” for example, refers to the lost continent proposed by Augustus Le Plongeon, whose 19th century work in the Yucatan involved trying to connect the Mayan to Egypt and Atlantis. His works influenced the theosophical thinking of Helena Blavatsky and Minnesota politician and lawyer Ignatius L. Donnelly, whose late-19th century writings on Atlantis represents an important landmark in 20th century pseudo-archaeological writing about the “lost continent”  (It is worth noting that throughout his political career Donnelly was a Radical Republican and later a Agrarian populist). The second track is titled “Lemuria” which evoked work of zoologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913) who argued that Lemuria once stood between Africa and India before sinking into the sea. His ideas both anticipated theories of continental drift and found favor as the home of humanity in the works of Helena Blavatsky. “Yucatan” and “Bimini” likely refer to various ideas of Atlantis in the work of the influential medium Edgar Cayce (1876-1945) whose books, including On Atlantis, appear in Ra’s library and who advocated for racist theories of polygenism for humanity (which cast a shadow over Ra’s thinking on race as well).It may be that the greatest influence on Sun Ra’s vision of Atlantis came from the Alsatian mystic and pseudo-archaeologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961).

Schwaller de Lubicz is exactly the kind of pseudo-archaeologist that academic archaeologists have condemned. He argued that the weathering on the Sphinx and its enclosure was the result of water and this suggested some of the monuments in Egypt should pre-date the Biblical flood and connected them with the destroyed continent of Atlantis. This allowed some readers (and many pseudo-archaeologists) to connect an Egypt and the construction of its great monuments to a much more ancient culture that was destroyed by the flood. This, like so much pseudo-archaeology, this argument sought to disassociate the Ancient Egyptian known to archaeologists (and by extension contemporary Egyptians) from many of its greatest monuments. In the hands of some, this served to sever the Egyptian cultural achievement from a Black, African past and contribute to racist arguments for the primitive and subordinate character of Black culture in the contemporary world. 

In this context, the 1968 English translation of Erich von Däniken’s Erinnerungen an die Zukunft which appeared in the year of its publication as Chariots of the Gods, seems almost superfluous, as does the fleet of late 1960s and early 1970s books on Atlantis that spurred Impulse! records to re-release of Sun Ra’s 1969 album of the same name. Sun Ra’s impromptu 1971 tour of Egypt where he encountered an Egyptian audience that was as ambivalent regarding his views on history as they were enthusiastic about his music, did little to discourage his theatrical explorations at the intersection of the space age and antiquity. Ra and members of the Arkestra filmed themselves in full regalia dancing among Egyptian ruins. During a visit to the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid the electricity failed, but Sun Ra was able to lead his party back to daylight. One of the members of his party, the German musician, poet, and philosopher Hartmut Geerken recalled Sun Ra saying: “Why do we need light, Sun Ra, the sun is here“ (Szwed 2000: 293). Earlier in the same year, Sun Ra was living in a house in Oakland provided to him by the Black Panthers and teaching a class at the University of California-Berkeley titled “The Black Man and the Cosmos.” The course featured a combination of esoteric readings, lectures, and musical performances and attracted more Black community members than Cal students. It would appear that Sun Ra’s ongoing performances, teaching, and travels complemented the growing interest in alternative archaeologies in the mainstream media, but did not appear to derive from them. They nevertheless combined to form a compelling backdrop Sun Ra’s 1974 cult classic film Space is the Place. In this film, Sun Ra clad in Egyptianizing costumes and flying a spaceship comes to Earth to save Black people from the daily injustices and inequality by transporting them to another world through the use of music. At once campy and breathtakingly earnest, Space is the Place reveals that Sun Ra’s blending of futurist and ancient iconography is more than just the playful juxtaposition of opposites, but part of a wider view of Black culture existing outside of the boundaries of time and space.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s an early fall Friday which means cooler temperatures, changing leaves, apples on our apple tree, and football for the backdrop for the hustle and bustle of the academic year. We’ve had just enough recent rain to make some fall foThis really is my favorite time of year.

I’m excited to switch between the Penn State “white out” game against Auburn on Saturday night and the Bristol NASCAR night race. Ohio State’s game verses Tulsa will provide a nice flickering backdrop to some weekend reading and writing. Without Carson Wentz to bring in local viewers, my Eagles aren’t on TV much out here in the Red River Valley, but I’ll be following them on my laptop. I’ve heard, but can’t confirm, that the Phillies season is over.

I hope that you all have some enjoyable weekend plans and, if not, maybe my quick hits and varia can help!

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Three Things Thursday: Rhys Carpenter, Digital Archaeology, and Work

It’s been a long week and I’m looking at a day filled with meetings, teaching, and other adventures. In light of this, it seems like a good time for a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

Last week, while having a conversation with one of my old Greek archaeology buddies, he casually mentioned that Rhys Carpenter had written poetry. I suppose this not a secret to the cognoscenti, but I didn’t know. Of course, I knew Rhys Carpenter as an architect and an archaeologist who had worked at Corinth and contributed in a powerful way not only to the development of a rigorous and diachronic American archaeology in Greece, but also in the systematic study of post-Classical and Byzantine remains. During my first year at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens as an aspiring archaeologist, I enjoyed the Rhys Carpenter fellowship (although I only gradually came to understand how cool a privilege to have his name associated with my career (albeit posthumously) was). 

In any event, a couple books of his poetry, published in the 1910s, is available via the Internet Archive. Check out The Sun-Thief and Other Poems (Oxford 1914) and The Tragedy of Etarre: A Poem (New York 1912)  The poetry falls just shy of feeling stuffy to me, but it is perhaps a bit too formal for contemporary tastes and it is unlikely to appear in a standard 20th century poetry survey course. That said, it does feel palpably modernist in its rather impersonal aspirations to the universal, in this case, cloaked in its Classical allusions and formal structures. Perhaps this style is appropriate for an architect and archaeologist who recognized the value in all periods (and even the beleaguered Byzantine) while still privileging Classical period. My colleague Kostis Kourelis, who introduced me to Carpenter’s poetry, make a similar argument in an article that he wrote several years ago now on the role that the archaeology of the Byzantine period in Greece played on Modernism and the avant garde. You can read it here

Carpenter also wrote a travelogue of a trip he took to Central America in the early 20th century. So it appears that his quest for the modern world in antiquity was not limited to areas and cultures traditionally articulated as the antecedent to modern European civilization. 

Early Candle Light (1914)

The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.
When autumn falls and withers every leaf,
When daylight shrinks and stormy nights grow long,
When winter-wind and winter-cold are strong,
And sorrow holds the weary heart in fief,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

When golden love lies bound with iron thong,
And noble tales but mock our dull belief,
When mirth has garnered every radiant sheaf
And all the sickly world is harsh and wrong,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his invocation of the seasons seemed appropriate today as I look out the basement window of the NDQ offices onto the Collegiate Gothic quad and watch the timeless movement of students against the fading green of summer.

Thing the Second

About 20 (almost 25!) years ago when people talked about “The Digital Archaeology,” I, like many people, assumed that this was simply a temporary trend that traced our collective effort as a field to negotiate technological change. But here we are.

This past week has produced a bumper crop of works on the use of digital technologies in archaeology. These range from field oriented considerations of low-cost and DYI approaches to digital tools. Check out Edouard Masson-MacLean and colleagues’, “Digitally Recording Excavations on a Budget: A (Low-Cost) DIY Approach from Scotland” or in the JFA. For an approach to field recording that is more prog than punk, check out the most recent from the FAIMS team in the same journal: “Deploying an Offline, Multi-User, Mobile System for Digital Recording in the Perachora Peninsula, Greece.”

For a less field oriented perspective, I’m excited to tuck into the recent Debate in Antiquity surrounding John Aycock’s article, “The coming tsunami of digital artefacts” which includes responses from some of my favorite thinkers about the digital tools and practices in archaeology: Sarah and Eric Kansa, Colleen Morgan, and Jeremey Huggett

The interplay between increasingly sophisticated perspectives on the theoretical side of digital archaeology and the practical challenges associated with data collection in the field, management during publication and dissemination, and curation après le déluge (as the kids say) continues to be worth watching and a source of inspiration.

Thing the Third

Rebecca Futo Kennedy wrote a blog post this week that really struck a chord. You can read it here. She basically argues that it is hard to get anything done. I can’t help but think of Yogi Berra’s quotable critique of a famous New York City restaurant: “Nobody goes there any more —it’s too crowded.” Despite feeling like I’m working all the time, I never feel like I’m getting anything done.

For a long time, this felt like running on a treadmill, but then I realize that most running (even when it meanders through the local park or streets in my small town) is running on a treadmill. The goal isn’t to get somewhere (or get away from something), but to endure the challenge and maybe improve (or at least hold station!). This isn’t meant to be a critique of Futo-Kennedy’s blog post, but it prompted a personal reflection. I feel like my own happiness is not connected to how much I work. I can write and read and “think” (or whatever passes for thought) day and after day and still wake up excited to do it all again. If I get bored or burned out on one project or task, I can shift my attention to something else: from research to teaching, from reading to writing, from writing to book production, from scholarship to creative work, and so on. 

My happiness and satisfaction with my job has increasingly come to revolve around process. When I’m doing what I’m doing, even if it doesn’t lead immediately to a “deliverable” result, I find that my life settles into a satisfying routine which, almost by its own volition, leads to things that the bean counters (and my colleagues) can discern as results. In other words, not getting things done seems, for me, to result in things that appear as accomplishments for those who care about such things.

This has got me thinking about the strange economy of the work-life balance industry and their occasional argument that working less often results in getting more done. This seems to assume that for most individuals, the product is more important than the process which is only good insofar as it can be minimized. For academics, I’d contend, the process is generally more appealing and satisfying than the product or outcome which tends to be ephemeral and contingent. Process, in contrast, is persistent and even when practices changed, continuously defined by certain disciplines, attitudes, affects, and experiences. Thus, the call for people to rebalance home life over work life as a way to become more efficient in their work misunderstands the appeal of work life and creates a scenario that, at least in some industries (such as academia), is likely to produce greater apathy toward work.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether the rise in rhetoric surrounding “life hacks” designed to make home life more efficient leads people, ironically, to change their attitudes to work. When the alternative to the efficient home is a place where individuals can experience process and certain attitudes toward tasks that bring a kind of satisfaction, efficiency oriented home life with its rhetorical emphasis on outcomes and accomplishments (the tidy lawn, the clean kitchen, the efficiently prepare meal, or the completed home repair) becomes strangely unappealing. I’d rather read another article, write another page, meet with a student, or reflect on a class than mow the lawn, do laundry, or complete some household chore even if these are made more efficient by labor-saving tools or other life hacks.

For me, at least, it’s telling that the most pointless work in my life — walking the dogs, going for a jog, riding my push-bike, or writing my blog — are also times when I think about work the most intently and with the greatest pleasure. I recognize that it is a luxury to have time to do pointless things and to think about my work and practice it in a positive and open way, but perhaps recognizing this privilege is a way toward revising how we think about work itself. Rather than celebrating models of work (and work/home balance) that look to improve the efficiency of our work life, perhaps we should re-examine how our attitudes toward work and expectations of accomplishments, efficiency, and product impact the quality of the work experience for people across society. Maybe the key to doing more is actually thinking about what gets done less. Making a kind of productive inefficiency at work a more appealing alternative to home will do more to address not only concerns of work/home, but also the anxieties that come with feeling like we’re never getting anything done.      

Citational Politics: Citing Dissertations

One of the aspects of revising my book manuscript that I’m currently negotiating is knowing whether and when to cite a dissertation. At some point in my career, someone told me it was generally bad form to criticize a dissertation (or a dissertation’s arguments) in a published work. It was regarded as a kind of punching down, and I feel like I’ve generally followed this rule.

I suppose that understanding this rule also put me off citing recent dissertations in general, beyond acknowledging their existence. As someone who started his academic career fairly early in the internet age, I worried about issues of access. I worried that citing scholarship that was not accessible to readers or reviewers was not a particularly useful gesture and something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary (such as in the case of referencing an idea from a dissertation or if a dissertation was the only existing reference for certain information). That said, with greater access to dissertations especially in digital forms, I have started to cite dissertations more frequently in my work, and this got my thinking about when it is appropriate to cite a dissertation and when it might be a good idea to avoid it (unless it is absolutely necessary for reasons of scholarly transparency or integrity!). 

On a short and painful run, I identified five types of dissertations each with their own challenges.

1. Classics. These dissertations are those golden theses that have enduring value and have never been replaced by a published book. For my work, John Leonard’s 2005 dissertation, “Roman Cyprus : harbors, hinterlands, and “hidden powers”,” which is a synthetic gazetteer of maritime sites on the island remains a useful (if slightly dated) reference for coastal Cyprus. I can add to this to Richard Maguire’s “Late Antique Basilicas on Cyprus,” a 2012 dissertation from the University of East Anglia, Jody Michael Gordon’s dissertation, “Between Alexandria and Rome: a postcolonial archaeology of cultural identity in Hellenistic and Roman Cyprus,” and Yannis Varalis’s 2001 dissertation on Early Christian basilicas from Illyricum Orientale at the University of Thessaloniki. There are, of course, many others.  

These are absolutely citable because they’re useful, insightful, and at 10 or more years after their appearance, it seems unlikely that a published version will appear that supersedes the unpublished dissertation.

2. Place Holder Dissertations. These are dissertations that are incredibly useful, but seem likely to be superseded by a published work. In most cases, the utility of these dissertations, at least in my field, has less to do with particular arguments that they make and more to do with the material that they synthesize or organize. A good example from my own research was William Bowden’s 2000 dissertation at East Anglia which included a fantastic gazetteer of sites in Epirus Vetus which included work published in Albanian. This dissertation was replaced by his 2003 book, Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late Antique Province, but while I was working on my dissertation, for example, his dissertation was too valuable to ignore and while the book is now the proper reference, from 2000-2003, the dissertation was a more than satisfactory place holder. Erkki Sironen’s dissertation at Helsinki, “The Late Roman and Early Byzantine Inscriptions of Athens and Attica” which ultimately appeared as IG volume (IG 14?) many years later. 

It seems reasonable to cite these dissertations especially in their capacity as synthetic works and catalogues where even if they are superseded by a published book, the basic utility remains intact.

3. Buddy Dissertations. There are some dissertations that develop in professional and person contexts that make it necessary to cite them, despite what might be their provisional status. These I am calling, colloquially, buddy dissertations. For example, David Pettegrew and I wrote our dissertations together and I was deeply influenced by his work. In this case, it only made sense to cite his, “Corinth on the Isthmus: Studies of the End of an Ancient Landscape” even though I knew that it would be superseded by a book. Similarly, Mike Dixon’s 2000 dissertation, especially on areas of the southeastern Corinthia was so well-known to me as an archaeologist and a fellow graduate student that it made sense to cite this as an influential work well before his book was published. In other cases, these dissertations are not literally by “buddies” or classmates, but by people whose paths or interests intersected during graduate school at conference, research centers like Dumbarton Oaks or the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and whose influences deserve formal acknowledgement.  

Citing these dissertations tends to reflect the existence of certain emerging knowledge networks that might not be entirely visible to people not familiar with the social life of the field.

4. Fresh Cuts. Today it is easier than ever to get a copy of a recent dissertation. Not only do many schools host digital repositories that make dissertations available soon after their acceptance, but ProQuest distributes dissertations in both digital and print form with most available for <$50 and almost instantly. These are dissertations that exist outside of one’s formal knowledge network which makes the status and content of these works harder to discern. More specifically, it makes it hard to know whether these works are finished products or place holders awaiting a more refined and developed revision published as a book manuscript. Because dissertation committees can exert considerable pressures on a student and because dissertations are often written under immense funding pressure and other academic deadlines, they often represent highly compromised documents that may or may not reflect the final stage of a scholar’s thinking. 

At the same time, with the vagaries of the academic job market and the ongoing contraction of certain fields, dissertations may be the only expression of a scholars contribution to the field. In other words, if we want to include new voices to ongoing discussions, we have to consider engaging with dissertations because the changing employment landscape of our discipline has eroded expectations that there will be support for revision and refinement in the future.

In these situations, it is hard to know whether we should cite dissertations and how we should engage their ideas. I still find the idea of criticizing an argument in a recent dissertation a form of “punching down” and unnecessary, but I do worry that a failure to critique substantively a dissertation as one would a published book or article is a form intellectual neglect that not only creates an uneven playing field but also may serve to marginalize voices already marginalized by the current academic economy.    

5. Embargoed Dissertations. I really wanted to call this “Embargo Queens” as a pun on “garage queens” or cars that are too beautiful to drive, but this would be unfair. What I’m referring to in this case are dissertations that are formally embargoed by their authors usually for 5 years. This usually means that the dissertation is not available as a digital copy or via ProQuest and the goal is to give the authors a chance to revise their dissertations and find a publisher. After all, the changing landscape of academia extends to publishing as well and I’ve heard more than one academic publishers say that they’re reluctant to even consider a publishing a book too closely based on a dissertation. 

The challenge with citing an embargoed dissertation is that access to these works is circumscribed and in many (if not most) cases the dissertation is undergoing revision. It’s like citing a work in progress without knowing what it is progressing toward and, to me at least, it feels only a little better than the dreaded “pers. com.” citation that makes a claim impossible to verify (the worst pers. com. are when the pers. with whom the author com.ed is no longer among the living).

Of course, it is always possible to reach out to the scholar and ask their permission or even request a copy of a dissertation. These personal networks, whether formed through buddy dissertations or just typical academic correspondence, remain a key cog in the professional machine, but they also represent privilege of access and whether we like it or not, power dynamics within our field. I do wonder whether a new PhD would feel comfortable denying access or permission to cite to a senior scholar in their field. 

Here, then, we have reached the end of my speculations on citational politics and dissertations. I’m not sure I’ve resolved my conundrum as to whether and how to cite, engage, and critique the range of dissertations available for scholarly consumption, and I would love to hear what other people thing about these issues!

Graffiti

A correspondence with Justin Walsh of the International Space Station Archaeological Project nudged me to return to Susan A. Phillips’s work on graffiti in Los Angeles. I had read some of her articles on graffiti and its relationship to Los Angeles history and late-20th-century gang culture, but for reasons that are hard to understand I had neither integrated this into my chapter on cities in my book, nor had read her rather recent book The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti.

It goes without saying that Phillips work is fantastic especially as she traces the intermingling of Los Angeles urban history (and ecology) and the practices and places of graffiti. It gets even more intriguing when she tracks the history of urban writing (up through tagging) — in the era before large scale graffiti mitigation and the rise of massive, roller assisted, street art — through the 1990s and anchors these in the significant subcultures in the Los Angeles area. The role of hobos, railroad workers, punks, immigrants, military men, neighborhood kids, queers, and various other vibrant subcultures made their marks on the urban landscape. 

As a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, I had always been fascinated by the graffiti that I saw especially on schools that had been mothballed around north Wilmington. (I remember vividly the massive cruciform graffito of The Who on the side of Forward Junior High School as a kid and wondering about it). Most of this graffiti was mystifying to me. I didn’t understand tags, street art, or any of the other conventions, but I did admire the appearance of names and art across the landscape that I knew so well. 

One of the really curious things about my community here in North Dakota is that there is almost no graffiti anywhere. There are a few odd marks on the Washington Street underpass and of course the rail yard ensures that we have a constant flow of decorated train cars through town. I’ve heard there was some painting on the tunnel under Route 2 near Wilder School years back, but my impression is that it’s gone. There is an occasional tag or stencil in the tunnel under Columbia Road on UND’s campus, but that’s usually painted over. Remarkably the city is defined by its flood walls, but I’ve never seen any graffiti on these wall (and I frequent the the parks created by the flood walls). As Mos Def quipped: “there’s a city full of walls to post complaints at.” But, maybe the lack of graffiti suggests that there is very little reason for the kind of pent up anxieties that manifested in graffiti or that the youthful exuberance that supported the desire to make one’s name known has been channeled into other, undoubtedly more “wholesome” (or at least more closely supervised) activities. 

One place where I did recognize graffiti was on UND’s campus, particularly in the Wesley College building sand I’m still kicking myself for not documenting it as intensively as we should have. Some of it we did photograph, such as these inscribed bricks found on the east wall of Robinson-Sayre Hall and these inscribed widows pains from Sayre Hall

Some of the best graffiti however was found inscribed into the solid wood furniture that had made its way into the soon to be demolished buildings. The graffiti here followed conventions and practices tracked by Phillips in many situations across Los Angeles. The writers, almost certainly students, carved their names, their initials, their feelings, and an assortment of dates into the table top along with band names and lyrics, fraternity and sorority names, and various other sentiments common to college students.

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The earliest graffito on the desk dates to 1956.

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But the most interesting is a sequence of dates starting in 1975 and updated into the 1990s (and the last date added was 2012).

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This table most likely was destroyed during the demolition of the building but it represents a remarkable find demonstrating over 60 years of continuity in student practices on campus. In an era replete with invented traditions, it is curious that we didn’t find anything more remarkable (or worth saving) in this far more authentic example of student culture.

What makes it all the more painful is that the rapid transformation of our campus over the last few years has made such long-lasting artifacts more and rare. Solid wood tables, chairs, and surfaces continuously visible for decades have become a rarity on our campus. In their place is an assortment of quickly discarded fiber board furniture, hard plastic chairs that have shorter lifespans than even the technologically dependent classrooms where they stand, and new, unblemished modern surfaces. These clean and disposable surfaces and contexts are obviously ironic. They offer new and prospective students the feeling of recently renovated hotel, prepare just for them, while obscuring the real marks of generations of students, faculty, and staff. They mimic the historical architectural forms of collegiate Gothic buildings with their suggestions of continuity and persistence, while replacing decades-old furnishing with the latest in laminated particle board and moulded plastic. In short, campus leaders eagerly transform the materiality of their institutions into the kind of benign (and sanitary) non-places expected of their short term residents (and their parents), while assuring the students that they can, figurative, make their mark on campus as part of a peerless tradition (that is neatly erased in time for the incoming class’s arrival).

I had the good fortune of attending Ohio State in the 1990s before the campus and its surroundings had become gentrified. Some of my fondest memories revolve around encountering the burry division between campus and the gritty surrounding community and realizing two contradictory things. First, the patina on campus reminded me that I was just a visitor here and one of many such visitors who had lived, studied, worked, and played in this place. But then, this also encouraged me to recognize that my ephemeral marks on campus — whether graffito or a well-trod path or a memory deeply inscribed in a particular place — contributed to its material form in a persistent way. This created a sense of connection which parallels some of Susan Phillips work on graffiti and one that I worry that I not only failed to document rigorously when I did see it on UND’s campus, but also sorely miss here at UND.   

Gravel Riding

This spring, I upgraded my 30 year old steel road bike with a gravel bike. As someone who had been an on-again, off-again road cyclist for most of his life, I had no idea what a gravel bike was, much less what to expect. In the distant past, I had owned a mountain bike and done a bit of mountain biking on the East Coast, but it had never really grown on me. I had also witnessed the “hybrid” commuter bike craze of the early 21st century and while those bikes interested me as someone who might enjoy a casual peddle through my neighborhood, they didn’t seem very serious, durable, or (to be honest) fun.

That all said, my trusty steel road bike had begin to look worse for wear and I knew that I probably needed to get a new bike if I was going to continue to ride. So when I received my Biden-Bonus, I headed down to the local bike shop with the plan to buy a mid-level road bike that would hopefully last another 30 years or so. After an hour of conversation, I left the shop with an entry level gravel bike.

For those into technical stuff, it’s a Specialized Diverge in aluminum. It’s not particularly fancy, but feels really solid on both the road and on less technical trails. It has drop handlebars, disc-brakes, and I’m still riding it with its original 700×38 Specialized Pathfinder Sport tires. With this set up, its real happy place is on gravel roads and I thought that I should introduce the readers of my blog to this happy place.

1. Riding Gravel. First and foremost, riding on a gravel road is its own kind of thing. As someone who grew up riding on the neatly pave roads of northern Delaware and Southeastern Pennsylvania and around Richmond, Virginia, I was not prepared to understand gravel.

In my experiences, for example, macro-topography was usually the greatest concern for planning a ride. Growing up my cycling buddies and I often considered elevation change, climbs, and descents as closely as we considered distance when we planned a ride. A 20 miler full of wickedly steep climbs was actually worse than a 40 miler over gently rolling hills. Gravel riding in North Dakota is more like surfing. Where I live, the only macro-component to ride planning is the direction and intensity of the wind (which consistently ranges between 3 and 4 on the Beaufort scale with some riding days approaching 5). Otherwise, the main concern is not the topography (which is flat) or distance (which varies depending on the wind strength and direction) but the gravel itself. 

Riding gravel involves a pretty intense attention to the area 3-5 feet in front of your bike. Finding a way to navigate the changing consistency and depth of the gravel and avoiding washboard ridges and ruts in the road is crucial to both a comfortable, efficient ride and staying upright. And the difference between good and bad gravel is the difference between humming along at 17 or 18 mph and bogging down and desperately searching for a higher gear (and then falling off your bike). Allowing a car or truck to pass often involves a delicate process of leaving enough room and finding a section of road hard enough prevent bogging down. Taking a drink from a water bottle or riding side-by-side involves anticipating paths through the gravel that extend further than the 3-5 feet in front of you and then making sure that you can snap your attention back to the road ahead. I’ve found that when I’m in the groove, there’s nothing quite like it. I’m discovering how to cross ridges of deep gravel and catching my back tire as it slides around. I’ve also learned to negotiate the one sweeping turn on my ride without scaring myself and intersections where ridges of gravel wash out your front tire. Yesterday I managed a ride with my tires at about 70 psi, which is pretty hard for a gravel bike tire, and managed to stay upright. I’ve also had the opposite happen; on a bad gravel day, I fall down a lot.   

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2. Formation Processes. One of the great things that this attention to the road in front of my front tire has brought to my attention is the formation processes involved in the making of gravel roads. As the photo above indicates, North Dakota gravel roads use a mixture of dirt and crushed stone. Each spring the roads receive a new level of gravel which appears to be poured on the center of the road and serves to accentuate the road’s crown (and facilitate drainage, one would imagine). Riding gravel in the spring is like riding through sand and tough going, but earlier season’s road bed often remains visible on the shoulders of the road and is often harder than the new gravel, but moving from the firmer shoulders to the emerging groves in the center of the road is not always easy. 

Over time, on a lightly trafficked road, a two grooves tends to develop where the gravel is both ground down into a hard surface and pushed to the side of the road by car tires. On more heavily travelled roads, three groove develop with cars sharing the middle groove of the road and leaving one path marking the tire tracks of cars traveling in either direction. For a cyclist, riding along this groove can be as easy as riding on a paved road and the soft shoulders are nearly impossible to negotiate. When traffic passes, it is sometimes possible to find the very edge of the soft gravel and to ascend and then slide down the gravel ridge back into the groove. This is strangely satisfying. 

Intersections are often scarred by washboarding where cars and trucks under braking have worn a washboard pattern into the road surface. The intersection itself tends to be a veritable miasma of dragged gravel which likely accounts for why many intersections are higher than the roads that enter it. Negotiate the loose and often deep ridges of gravel at intersections is a real challenge and turning across is often harrowing (heh, heh, see what I did there?). 

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3. Local Landscapes of Gravel. One of the paradoxes of riding on gravel is that it requires a good bit of concentration on the road immediately in front of you and taking in the scenery is sometime rewarded with the of bone jarring surprise of washboard ruts or the slushy sound of deepening gravel. That said, gravel roads are the only way to really appreciate the landscape around my home town. There are only two paved roads (that aren’t interstates) in and out of the town and the rest of the landscape is only accessible by the neat grid of paved section line roads set 1 mile apart. 

In the rare moments when its possible to enjoy the scenery, late summer and fall landscape is pretty interesting. There are the very first hints at next year’s winter wheat crop and the rustle of corn and the low broad-leafed acreage of sugar beets, which are just now seeing the very first “pre-pile” harvest.

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And of course, rural churches and their cemeteries which punctuate the countryside reminding us that there were once settlements here that have all but disappeared.

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It’s hard to fathom what it must have been like to live on the Northern Plains in the decade before statehood and the railroad but the grave markers offer a quiet reminder of that life.

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Friday Varia and Quick Hits

I woke up early this morning to watch a bit of the final England-India Test before taking the dogs to their club only to find that the match had been abandoned due to COVID concerns. Such is life in the new normal.

Fortunately this looks like it will be one of those lovely fall weekends with temperatures today reminding us of what summer felt like before cooling across Saturday and Sunday with some clouds. Fall in North Dakota really is the best.

This weekend is also packed with sport. My Ohio State Buckeyes have a huge game against Oregon tomorrow. The NFL season is kicking off (although the Eagles won’t be on TV in my area, I was able to enjoy a bit of the Cowboys’ loss last night). Tonight, Oscar Valdez fights Robson Conceicao on a substantial Top Rank boxing card (and for heavy weight fans, Tony Yoka fights this afternoon in Paris; he’s an interesting guy who is starting to move up the rankings). The F1 party heads to the Monza for some low downforce fun and the NASCAR circus races on Saturday night at Richmond. The Phillies will also continue to work hard to give Atlanta some space atop the NLeast standings. What more can you want?

I suppose you could eagerly request a little list of quick hits and varia and who am I to deny you?

Here you go:

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Clueless Milo (if you zoom into the background you’ll see why) 

After Discourse

This past weekend, I read After Discourse: Things, Affects, Ethics edited by Bjørnar J. Olsen, Mats Burström, Caitlin DeSilvey, and Þóra Pétursdóttir. The entire book is worth a perusal, if you’re familiar with the work of the editors and their typical host of collaborators and colleagues. 

I want to focus on two specific parts of the book that attracted my attention. 

The first section of the book was titled: “Things: Writing, nearing, knowing” and it brought together a series of articles that considered how we write about the archaeology of the contemporary world. The contributors to this section address something that I too have recognized as a problem (and to be honest I was likely inspired as much by reading the contributors and editors fo this volume as works by scholars such as Amitav Ghosh, Lauren Berlant, and Rebecca Solnit). I’ve started to wonder about the limits to the language, genre, and forms of writing that we use to think and write about our own place within the deep past (whether articulated as the Anthropocene or something else), within the climate crisis, and within the incredibly (and increasingly) fleeting moment that is the contemporary.

It was particularly exciting to read Bjørnar J. Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir’s explicit critique of the IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) style of academic (and, in particular, archaeological) writing. Scholars have long argued that its concise form and easily recognized and understood style of organization evokes an idealized form of the scientific processes that produce the article’s specific conclusions. At the same time, this this idealized form suppresses the complexities, ambiguities, and openness of the research process in the name of legibility and efficiency. While there is no doubt that it is easier for an academic to read and process an article written in IMRAD style, but, as we’ve seen with the recent wave of the anti-science movement, the clarity of expression may not be the only and best measure for effectiveness of knowledge production. Our unwillingness  

[I’m increasingly interested in the role that fiction can and should play in academic knowledge production.]

As Robert Macfarland pointed out in his essay, the complexities of the archaeological record and our current cocktail of crises (COVID, capitalism, racism, virulent populism, climate change) resist resolution or reduction in a tidy linear package. Tracing the contours of the contemporary may involve embracing a styles of writing that moves abruptly across scales, embraces fragmentation, doubles back on itself, and reifies the inherent ambiguity of processes whose outcomes are not yet clear.

I was likewise taken by Chris Witmore and Curtis L. Francisco’s journey through the environment surround the Jackpile-Paguate uranium mine in New Mexico. The mine was the largest open pit uranium mine in the world and functioned from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. The Laguna Pueblo people live in the lands surrounding the mine and many worked in the mine itself. The impact of the radiation unleashed from the exploitation of the mine into the region has been catastrophic for this community, as their lands, their homes, and the local landscape itself has become radioactive. While the mining company made an effort to remediate the mine, the site remains a superfund site, but mitigating the damage that the radiation has caused to the surrounding area seems impossible.

The contribution by Witmore and Francisco is not a straight forward discussion of the mine and its history and impacts, but a trip through the landscape surrounding the mine. By tracing the impacts of the mine on the ground through places, stories, and encounters, the deep integration of the radiation and the mine with the area becomes not clear —because this isn’t a story that requires or rewards clarity—but apparent against the shifting backdrop of the history, environment, and economy of the Pueblo community.

To be clear, Witmore and Francisco do not present their argument for the impact of the Jackpile-Paguate mine through some kind of radical or chimerical generic exploration. Their article is simply the synthesis of a series of trips and conversation through the area surrounding the mine. This approach to communicating and exploring the issues surrounding the impact of the mine, the ubiquity of the radiation that the mining unleashed, and the future of the people, animals, and plants that live in this tainted landscape, however, leads the reader away from any simple solution and toward a deeper appreciation of the complexities associated with life in the Anthropocene.

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In any event, this book is good and well worth the read even if the themes and participants publish almost as frequently as William Parker releases albums. There will be something familiar in this book and the work of these authors does not exist outside of the contemporary academic economy where production is measured in pages published and citations counted. That said, there is enough thought provoking here to be worth our time.