Day of Archaeology: Age Gracefully and Get Out of the Way

I’m not a huge “Day of Archaeology” guy. I guess I should be, but most of my days as an archaeologist involve not quite enough archaeology for me to talk openly about my work as an archaeologist per se. But, whatever, there seems to be some excitement about the Day of Archaeology this year, so I’ll post something here and shoot it out over the Twitters with the appropriate hashtags.

First, I did do archaeology today! I had a long chat with my collaborators, David Pettegrew and Scott Moore, about the final publication of our excavations at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus. In particular, we discussed how we’ll publish material from an earlier excavation at the site and integrate it into our work. The conversation was mostly organizational. What numbers do we give artifacts found in these earlier excavations and how will these numbers coincide with the numbers that we assigned to artifacts and strata from our work? We also worked to track down some catalogue entries and readings of context pottery to make sure that we have as complete a data set in font of us before we start a week of writing on Monday.

For me, this speaks to what archaeology is about, especially as I enter the long “end game” of my career. I have been working in the field, every summer, and periodically during the rest of the year, for almost 20 years. I have a lifetime of archaeological material to publish scattered about in my head, on hard drives, and in storeroom and dusty sites. I’m sure that I’ll do more field work at some point, but as I look ahead to my late-40s I also realize that my body, my mind, and my career probably don’t need it. In some ways, the organizing and publishing of material from the field is both typical of this day of archaeology and perhaps most of my archaeological days for the rest of my life and career.

As I dragged my ragged and broken body and addled mind through hill and valley over the last few years, I was humbled and exhilarated to work with a group of energetic and smart graduate students and colleagues. These friends have shown me, if nothing else, that archaeologists must find ways to age gracefully, put aside their trowels and hiking boots, and let the next generation of scholars take on the challenges of the field and the opportunities of new finds, new sites, and new interpretations. My job, as a greying and increasingly broken-down Associate Professor, involves both supporting their work and as frequently, staying out of their way!

To support the next generation of scholars, I’ll keep working to create a new model to publish archaeological interpretation and analysis with my Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. In fact, just this morning, I tweaked away on the layout of a new book on digital tools and practices in Mediterranean archaeology. I’ll also work with more established presses to produce dynamic, linked archaeological volumes. This morning, I send a draft of a new digital edition of our volume on the survey at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus. This digital edition includes links to our data in Open Context and will hopefully serves as a model for hybrid, paper and digital publications. 

I’m also spending time reading books like Leonard Cassuto’s The Graduate School Mess (2015), in my capacity as director of graduate studies in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota. While I don’t agree with Cassuto’s premise or his solutions (to what I see as mainly non-problems), his book has kept me thinking about how we as faculty can continue to produce fertile ground for the next generation of historians and archaeologists. While getting out of their way is relatively easy, leaving the ground better for them looks to be more difficult as funding, educational, and cultural priorities change in the 21st century. 

Finally, I did what I do most mornings. I wrote an entry on my long-running blog, The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. While ye olde blogge is probably well past it’s heyday, it still attracts some reader and waves the flag for my research and interests in the mob-scene that is the internet. It provides a platform for my ideas, promotes the work of my colleagues in the field, and helps me maintain a certain amount of discipline each day in my writing (and, for whatever it is worth) my thinking. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s a lovely Friday morning here in North Dakotaland. The birds are squawking, the dogs are barking, and the mosquitos are as big as man’s hand. There is Formula 1 racing this weekend, the tense end to an interesting test match between Sri Lanka and Australia, and the Phillies are even playing decent, if generally unsuccessful, baseball. 

It seems like a great time for a little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

IMG 5271Amphibious Milo (we always thought he was a lefty).

IMG 5266 I got my eye on you, Yellow Dog.

Camera Kalaureia

Over the last decade, I’ve been messing around with the relationship between photography and archaeology. As Y. Hamilakis has noted photography and archaeology are “two collateral apparatuses of modernity.” Hamilakis and F. Ifantidis have found new ways to interrogate and reflect on the relationship between photography and archaeology in their new book, Camera Kalaureia (2016). Snippets of ethnographic texts overlay the photographs throughout the short book making clear that the photographs are part of the ethnographic project, and, indeed, the book is called a “Photo-Ethnography.” 

The book uses photography as a way to explore the relationships between the past and the present at the site of Kalaureia on Poros. By consciously recognizing photography as an act and the viewing of the photograph as part of that action, the authors embrace the potential of the photograph as a mediator between the viewer, the photographer, and the objects associated both with photography and the history of the site. In their hands, the modern history of the site – including its carefully planted olive trees, the scarred pine trees from resin collection, the traces of modern tiles and mud brick, and the inscribed graffiti of the landowners – fights for attention with the ancient history of the site and long-robbed out temple of Poseidon. More poignantly, the photographs trace the barriers that define the site – a locked gate, a guard shack, and the red-and-white tape and ropes that cordon off the archaeologists’ trenches –  and their intersection with the movement of visitors, workmen, and archaeologists across the site. 

The photographs are not what we might imagine as conventional “documentary photographs” framed by a kind of “objective” style that focuses the viewer on a point, a person, or an object. Instead the photographs in this book actively drag the viewers eye across panoramas, in and out of focus, and into photos that lack enough contrast to distinguish easily between foreground an background. In fact, some of the most compelling photographs display a relentlessness of focus that prevents the eye from settling comfortably on a point in the photograph. The absence of any place for the eye to rest compels us, first, to become aware of the photographer and the camera, and, then, to probe the photograph for some object, individual, or meaning. 

The text makes clear that the camera’s lens and the photographer are as essential to the landscape as the trees, the fragments of the recent past, the archaeologists, and the antiquities. The situatedness of the photographer, the ethnographic texts, and the photographs push the viewer and reader to recognize the persistent interposition of the present, the modern, and the ancient.

The book is worth a careful exploration and this is made more appealing because it’s a free download! Check out their photoblog as well

Cover Options for Mobilizing the Past

I’ve spent a good bit of time this July laying out the next book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology edited by Erin Walcek Averett, Jody Michael Gordon, and Derek Counts will represent both state of the field survey on digital tools and techniques in archaeological fieldwork, and also offer critical perspectives on these tools and methods. 

Last week, I posted some images of the page layout and got some good feedback on it. This week, I want to post two cover mock ups and get some feedback. Both are designed by Dan Coslett and will invariably receive some tweaking by the time they appear in print. The concepts, however, are pretty fully formed and the play between the trowel and the tablet carries through to the chapters headings throughout the book.

00 MTP Introduction Trial 09 pdf page 1 of 32

Here’s cover option 1:

MtP Cover 3a dft1

Here’s cover option 2 (the grey border is just to set it off from the white background of the blog):

MtP Cover 4a dft1 jpg

What do you think?

Thinking about Sources for a Western Civilization Textbook

Last week I talked a bit about putting together a proposal for an un-textbook designed for an active-learning style Western Civilization class. The proposal is probably never going to amount to anything “real,” but it is designed to pull together various notes and ideas from my four semesters of teaching Western Civilization I in a Scale-Up style classroom

The little section below doesn’t really do the larger project justice. The goal of the class has been to get the students involved in writing history from the very first week. To get them going, however, I need to introduce some basic technical vocabulary (primary and secondary sources, chronological systems) and some basic tools (working in groups). I’ll bring these components into my chapters as I go (and maybe later today).


Sources are at the heart of any historical work. Historians divide their sources into two kinds. This division is largely arbitrary but it nevertheless reflects two different ways of thinking about the past.

Primary sources are sources more or less contemporary with the time in which they describe. A newspaper is a primary source. A law code is a primary source. A ancient inscription on stone is a primary source. Tweets and Facebook posts produced during an important public event like the Super Bowl or Presidential election night. As long as the document describes a contemporary event, it is a primary source.

Secondary sources are works that bring together primary sources usually to advance an argument. A history textbook, like the one that you will write in this class, is a secondary source. Articles in Wikipedia or by professional historians are secondary sources as well. These sources use primary sources to advance arguments about events in the past.

While this distinction is obvious is its most simplified form, things get more complicated in practice. For example, an ancient work of literature, like the epic poems of Homer or the history of Tacitus – are primary sources as well for the period in which they were written, but secondary sources for the period that they describe. The same might apply to, say, a history textbook written in the 1930s which described European politics before WWII. It is a primary source for attitudes toward, say, Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but a secondary source when it pulls together sources for European political history between WWI and WWII.

Primary and secondary sources should be read in different ways. Primary sources are generally read to understand something about a past culture. They might provide some basic information – like who was in ruling a state – or insights into social situations – like whether women could own a tavern. Some primary sources provide us a kind of “factual” information on the past. For example, census record can give us an idea of how many people lived in a community at a particular time. Reports from a battlefield can tell us what units participated in an campaign. At the same time, primary sources can also provide us with an idea of how people thought about their world in the past. For example, census records can tell us who the state counted and why. Political records can tell us why a political leader acted as he or she did. This kind of information can help us understand what people in the past valued, how they understood political power to function, and what motivated them to behave in certain ways. To extract that information, however, primary sources must be read carefully and critically. Always ask yourself what a document say as well as why is says is.

Secondary sources should also be engaged in a critical way. Works written by professional historians, like your textbooks, draw upon primary sources to make arguments, but this doesn’t mean that the professional historian can’t be wrong. It is always smart to go back to the primary sources to make sure that even the best professional historian has made a convincing argument. To facilitate this, professional historians use footnotes and cite the sources that they use allowing readers to track them down. Become a careful reader of footnotes and always ask yourself how the author of a secondary sources supports his or her arguments.

For secondary sources like Wikipedia, an extra level of scrutiny is necessary. These sources sometimes cite their primary sources or cite other secondary sources, but the authors are often not as careful. This doesn’t mean that Wikipedia is useless resource. For basic information – names, dates, and places – Wikipedia is unparalleled, but for historical arguments and analysis, it should be used with great caution.

That being said, read all secondary and primary sources carefully.

Track Changes

Anyone interested in the impact of technology on our work as scholars and writers should read Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (2016), and check out some supplemental material here. The book is not only entertaining to read, but it intersects with so many of the key issues facing our engagement with technology today, that it may well spawn hundreds of master’s theses and not a few dissertations. Kirschenbaum surveys the use of word processors in the literary community beginning in the late 1970s and concluding with their ubiquitous presence in the contemporary world. The book is full of room-sized IBMs, boxy Kaypros, glitchy Osbournes, and iconic computers from Wang and Apple which transformed the way that authors (and the rest of us) wrote. (The book evoked a good bit of nostalgia for me as I vividly remember writing in WordStar on a Kaypro II during middle school!). 

The book has so much to offer a careful reader that I can’t imaging writing anything approaching a full review. Unlike many books on media archaeology these days, Kirschenbaum’s book does not hit you in the face with a body of dense theory (although it is clear that the likes of Freidrich Kittler and other media theory darlings are just off stage) and instead tells engaging stories about authors’ engagement with word processors. Kirschenbaum’s stories explore the economy of writing and authors’ hopes for greater efficiency, the changing expectations of publishers, and need to facilitate collaborative writing at distance. He also unpacks the anxieties authors faced with adapting to new technologies from the fear of losing words and pages to the expense and complexity of purchasing (and using) a new machine in the early days of personal computing.

Here are few observation on a book that you should just go and read:

1. The Art of the Rewrite. As someone who generally writes on the screen and then revises on paper, I am a firm believer that writing is revision. One of the strands that runs through Kirschenbaum’s book is the way in which writing “in light on glass” transformed the work of revision from the painstaking task of retyping pages of text to revising words on the screen. I didn’t realize how early the “cut and paste” commands existed in word processing and how fundamental the ability to insert and move text around in a document was to the functioning of work processing programs. It had the potential to make revision process far more dynamic activity and to destabilize the integrity of the text throughout the writing process. I found myself deeply curious about how authors understood their manuscripts at various phases of the revision process.

Did the ease with which even the earliest word processors allowed texts to be reorganize lead writers to think about their texts differently? I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the ease with which fragmentation that was possible with digitally produced texted encouraged more modular writing processes and echoed the “cut-up” practices associated with, say, William Burroughs. I have considered whether the our increasing use of digital tools in archaeology has a similar tendency to fragment the site. 

2. Writing is Work. Kirschenbaum did a remarkable job emphasizing how valuable word processing was to writers who wrote massive quantities of books to make a living. Jerry Pournelle was among the earliest adopters of a word process and credited it with a massive increase in efficiency. Isaac Asimov was a somewhat later adopter of a personal computer and word processor, but he likewise enjoyed improvements in the tidiness of his manuscripts and his ability to put words on the page quickly. 

By emphasizing the needs of this kind of writer, Kirschenbaum shifts the emphasis from the author as artist to author as self-employed worker in words. The word processor goes from a machine that risks compromising delicate creative processes to a boon to the real work of authors for whom word count, deadlines, and efficiency matter. Of course, writers never work in a vacuum. Kirschenbaum considers the secretaries, assistants, typists, spouses, and even publishers who worked alongside authors to make manuscripts into books. There is, for example, a blatantly gendered aspect to the spread of the word processor as it was marketed to administrative assistants, typists, and secretaries who were predominantly hwomen. The word processor, in this context, moves beyond the writerly task of the author and mediates between the various actors involved in the writing as work. As a device, the word processor intersected with the social, economic, and even personal roles of everyone involved in the creative process. 

3. Writing Material. Throughout the book, there is this delicate thread of that emphasizes the materiality of the writing process. The feeling of the keyboard, for example, was a concern for writers who were sometimes transition from the rather unforgiving keys of a manual typewriter. The size and resolution of the screen also shaped how writers engaged their texts with the limited number of lines on the screen even encouraged one author to write in shorter paragraphs.

Some of the early word processors took up entire rooms and others took pride of place on desks, living rooms, and writing rooms. Artifacts from early word processing, including word processors themselves, have filled museums and archives and communicated their materiality as effectively as typewriters and stacks of manuscript pages have represented the output of authors using more analogue tools. Just as well-worn ribbons preserve traces of an author’s writing, so disks of all sizes and shape have come to stand in for the a writer’s work. Kirschenbaum and the authors themselves dwell intermittently on how the metal boxes and magnetic disks and tapes form an intimate part of the writing process.

Any number of these topics – and many more throughout the book – would reward further exploration, research, and narrating, but Kirschenbaum does a nice job of presenting a sufficiently sweeping overview of the history of word processing to open doors. For my interest in the digital tools used in archaeology, his work is decisive in making clear that word processors are not simply tools that writers use dispassionately to perform their tasks, but cogs in a larger literature machine (my term) that extends from the creative idea to the published work. The ambivalence of many authors in adopting new tools was a not a testimony to a kind of luddism, but rather a reasoned skepticism that ranged from concerns about disrupting honed creative processes to the learning curve dealing with new technologies. The adoption of digital tools in both writing and archaeology transformed the social landscape of these practice because these tools mediate between various individuals with various skill sets required to produce a final product. Kirschenbaum’s work offers a kind of history and ethnography of writing practice at the dawn of the digital age. It would be quite valuable for some eager soul to consider the dawn of digital practices in archaeology the same way. 

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

It’s been a while, but I am getting back into the swing of blogging this summer. In other words, I feels like it’s time for a few quick hits and varia.

It’s good sports weekend with the F1 chaps at Hungaroring, the NASCARlers at the Brickyard, and Indy Car in Toronto. If you’re a real sports fan, though, you’re getting up early to watch England v. Pakistan in cricket. Pakistan took the first test in the series at Lords. If this test series isn’t being read as a critique of England’s conflicted history with its colonial past, then people don’t know how to read sports as politics.  

Lots of ways to deal with the frog days of summer.

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The Digital Press is Mobilizing the Past

Over the last six months, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has been collaborating with a remarkable group of authors, editors, and reviewers to produce an edited volume from an NEH funded conference called Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology held last February in Boston. It was a good conference with good conversations among the participants. After a round of peer review and ample time for revision, the book will be more than just good and will stand as a significant marker in the discussion of digital tool in the discipline. I’m super proud and excited to be part of the project as both a contributor, collaborator, and publisher. The plan is for the book, edited by Jody Michael Gordon (Wentworth Institute of Technology), Erin Walcek Averett (Creighton University), and Derek B. Counts (Wisconsin-Milwaukee), to appear this fall and so far we’re on schedule.

One of the most rewarding parts of the publication process is the design of the interior. For this book, I have been working with Dan Coslett, a graduate student in architecture at the University of Washington. He designed the original poster for the conference and I think it’s just great:

NEH WebsiteBanner rev2jpg

He’s going to design the book cover for us, and help me with interior design. Over the last couple days we went through no fewer than 9 iterations. We had a few challenges. First, after a little discussion, I insisted that we set the book in a serif font, but our “house font” for the press has been the rather stodgy (and 17th c.) Janson. This clearly was not an ideal font for a book that is looking toward our “digital future.” At the same time, I didn’t feel comfortable going with even the classiest sans serif font worrying that it would make what is a serious academic book seem ephemeral. Instead, I looked for a contemporary looking serif-ed font and settled on Tisa. Since I have a few projects on the horizon that might require a more technical, highly legible, and contemporary font, I think having Tisa share our house standard with Janson is a good thing. Finally, I continued a design cue that I used in the Bakken Goes Boom! (buy here or download here!) 

My rather hasty first draft of the first page of the introduction looked like this:

00 MTP Introduction Trial 01 pdf page 1 of 33

We thought it was probably a bit too crowded so we started to find ways to give it more space, by reducing the size of the font for the chapter title.

00 MTP Introduction Trial 02 pdf page 1 of 29

I have a tendency to go with very dense text blocks (probably similar to how I write and think!), and to counteract this we decided to expand the leading a bit in an early revision. Dan also suggested that his trowel-and-tablet graphic was maybe a bit too big for the page. Finally, we went decided to bold the chapter title instead of going with all caps especially since we’re going to use centered, all caps for the top headings in the chapters.  

00 MTP Introduction Trial 04 pdf page 1 of 32

 Of course, we couldn’t leave well enough alone and continued to play with the design, particularly the font size of the chapter title and the location of the authors’ names.

00 MTP Introduction Trial 05 pdf page 1 of 32

I tended to want a more prominent chapter title than Dan did:

00 MTP Introduction Trial 06 pdf page 1 of 32

And we both couldn’t resist the lure of all caps!

00 MTP Introduction Trial 07 pdf page 1 of 32

Smaller title font allowed us to keep authors’ names and the title next to the trowel-and-tablet icon.

00 MTP Introduction Trial 08 pdf page 1 of 32

In the end we decided that was simply not that high a priority and likely to change as titles and numbers of authors varied across contributions.

Here’s our final decision (but even it will be lightly tweaked because I forgot to include the chapter number!):

00 MTP Introduction Trial 09 pdf page 1 of 32

More on this project as it gains momentum over the next few weeks. My hope is to have basic layout of the book done by early next week, a table of contents, and have a draft of the cover to show off then too!

So stay tuned!


I’ve been thinking a good bit about reading lately. Some of it comes from a stalled summer reading list. Some of it comes from the growing awareness that I don’t really read enough. I’ve been shamed lately when I hear about the prodigious amounts of reading my colleagues do and recognize more and more that I’m struggling to keep up with recent developments in my field.

I’ve also become aware that my reading has largely become practical. I read manuscripts that I’m peer reviewing. I read books that I’ve been asked to review in publications. When I do read, I tend to read rather surgically, ferreting out specific types of information, arguments, and even just mining for citations (which I then read for more citations. It’s really just citations all the way down.)

Finally, I’ve started to embrace serious reading on digital devices on a more regular basis. This summer I made my first effort to read an academic book on my Kindle and I’ve slowly converted most of my reading list to pdfs. 

My thinking about reading has led me three places.

1. Find Some Focus. One of the challenges I’ve faced lately is my research has become too disparate stretching from the Northern Plains to Cyprus and Greece. I need to find a way to refine my focus to prioritize at least some of my reading. For example, I’ve been carrying around a copy of Thansis Vionis 2013 book on the Medieval Cyclades. Clearly, this is a priority for my work in the Argolid and even on Cyprus, but for whatever reason, the book in its unread state has come to represent my failures as a serious scholar. 

I need to establish a list of works and prioritize my reading not because I want to my focused, professional reading to take over my reading universe, but to help to put some limits on my surgical reading and free up time to read more broadly.  

2. Read to Read. I tell my graduate students that most of the habits that I’ve formed over my academic career developed either during my preparation for my comprehensive exams or during the most intense stages of dissertation writing. In fact, I suspect that comprehensive exams are less valuable for what you read and remember, and more valuable for the habits that you form. 

When I was reading for comps some 20 years ago (!!) I read a couple books a week for around 18 months. I took some notes on them, read some reviews, and generally tried to think broadly about works that fell far outside my area of research specialization. In other words, I developed the habit of reading to read, not toward some specific and practical research goal (putting aside the goal of passing my comprehensive exams). I need to get back to doing that, and so I’m going to try to embrace the act of reading as an end to itself. Maybe I’ll even try one of those “book-a-week” deals. 

3. Read Differently. Despite my broad interest in digital media and digital history and archaeology, I usually read my books on paper. As I tell my friends, it’s like driving my Ford F150. I just love the feeling of driving a truck. I love the smell of wet dog, dirt, spilled coffee. I rolling through town at 5-10 mph below the speed limit with my yellow dog (and soon, my puppy). I know that in many ways trucks are obsolete dinosaurs, but I just love driving mine. I recognize that paper books are similar to big trucks: impractical, emotional, and moving invariably toward a kind of practical obsolescence. Who wants to carry three months worth of books overseas? Who has the patience to wait for a new book to arrive when an instant download is a click or two away? Who has the space to store papers books and the time to organize them? I know some people do have the passion for paper, but like my truck, it’s largely irrational and typically a luxury for folks who don’t read for a living.

This isn’t to say that trucks don’t have certain value. Last night a storm brought down several large branches in my yard, and it’ll be nice to just chuck them in the back of my truck and drive to the green waste disposal bins. 

This summer I tried to read an academic book on my Kindle. The reading part was fine, but I found myself myself struggling to navigate backward and forward in the book. The probably wasn’t the intuitive controls on the Kindle or even the bookmarking function which worked well. The issue was that I tend to be a (to paraphrase my undergraduates) a very “visual reader.” I tend to remember the structure of pages: the paragraph breaks, subheadings, and even the location of passages on either odd or even pages. The Kindle removes those kind of visual cues from my memory and when I change the font size or jump around in the book, the pages repaginate making it hard for me to remember just where I read that passages that I didn’t highlight when I read it, but want to highlight later.

In pdf versions of books, the page structure remains largely intact even if visual cues like the binding are absent. As a result, I tend to remember the location of key passages and, invariably, content of the book better. 

Lessons from the Bakken Oil Patch

Last month, my colleagues and I wrote a short paper for a Journal of Contemporary Archaeology forum on the archaeologies of forced and undocumented migration. Our paper focused on our work on the North Dakota Man Camp Project.

Here’s the abstract

This article summarizes the recent work of the North Dakota Man Camp Project to understand the largely undocumented migrants arriving in the Bakken Oil Patch for work. It argues that efforts to document short-term labor in the Bakken exposes particular challenges facing the archaeology of the modern world ranging from the ephemerality of short-term settlements to the hyper-abundance of modern objects. The use of photography, video, interviews, and descriptions produced an abundant archive of archaeological ephemeral that in some ways parallels the modern character of temporary workforce housing.  The final section of the article offers some perspectives on how work in the Bakken oil patch can inform policy, our understanding of material culture in the modern world, and the role of the discipline in forming a shared narrative.


And here’s the paper: