Heading Out West

Early tomorrow morning I’m heading out to the Bakken for a “Man Camp Dialogue” at Capital Lodge near Tioga and a few days of research with a team of Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, and photographers John Holmgren and maybe Ryan Stander. Tom Isern will moderate our conversation. If you want to know what we’re on about, download this lovely free guide (pdf) graciously provided by Tom’s Center for Heritage Renewal. The program is funded by our friends at the North Dakota Humanities Council. The event is from 6:30-8 pm on Friday evening at Capital Lodge near Tioga.

Before and after the event, we plan to check out our long term study sites in the Bakken and see how they’re holding up during a time of diminished drilling, expanding housing options, and another round of legal restrictions on the conditional use permits that so much short-term workforce housing uses for zoning.

While my colleagues may have various goals (and that’s part of the fun of this project), I have a few priorities in mind for this trip:

1. The Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch. I’ve been working to revise my Tourist Guide to the Bakken and eliminate some of the evidence for its hasty and piecemeal composition. The biggest challenge is keeping in mind the genre of the tourist guide and balancing that with my desire to use this form of writing to introduce and critique the Bakken as a living, working, changing, historical landscape. 

I also need to spend some time filling in a few holes in my manuscript. The largest is the route from Watford City to Killdeer and then Dickinson, which I’ll fill in on the drive home. I also want to fill in a bit around Williston and Watford City. My treatment of the former, is particularly superficial, and I’d like to write something about the role of various churches in both towns. 

2. Abandonment. When I was last in “the patch” in the spring, there were clear signs that some of the more marginal workforce housing sites were being abandoned. I hope each time that I venture to the Bakken to discover an abandoned workforce housing site that had enough intensity of use to leave a modern signature on the group. (We’ve noted some abandoned camps, for example, around Wheelock, but these camps do not seem to have been in use for longer than a few months.) The best case scenario would be to do a little informal survey without collection of the site to document systematically what is left behind.

3. Changing Character. One of the real challenges that I’ve faced the last few times in the Bakken is the feeling that many of the RV parks are more run-down and less dynamic places with aging infrastructure and features. The problem is that documenting these relatively subtle changes to workforce housing sites is difficult. We will continue to document using photography extensively and hope that our systematic photographs will provide us with an opportunity to document changes that remains elusive on the ground. We’ll also take long-form notes and do some work documenting individual units to build on that archive with an eye toward noticing the small changes that suggest that workforce housing has changed in the region.

4. Conversation, Perspective, and Publication. Finally, I’m looking forward to conversations with our field team which comprised of some folks who have been visiting the Bakken with us a few times a year and folks who have not been to out west since 2013. I am also excited to work alongside two exceptional photographers in Ryan Stander and John Holmgren and try to understand how they are seeing the Bakken. Finally, I hope to pin down members of the publication team (Kostis, Bret, Richard) and set a deadline on our resubmission to Historical Archaeology as well as various other projects. Research is great, but publication gives our work lasting value and impact. We’ve been working in the Bakken for close to 4 years now and its time to have something tangible to show for it.

Toward an Ottoman Archaeology

I really enjoyed Benjamin Anderson’s recent article in the new and more frequent Journal of Field Archaeology. Anderson considers Ottoman attitudes toward antiquities and challenges the long-held view that Ottoman society did not have a coherent discourse or substantial interest in antiquities. 

Any discussion of “Ottoman” society is tricky, of course, because the Ottomans only rarely promoted a single, national discourse as one might expect from contemporary European nation-states. As a result, Anderson turns his attention to evidence for a “local” archaeological discourse through a series of case studies that explore the removal of antiquities from Ottoman cities by European agents in collaboration with the Ottoman state. He described how the removal of the Incantadas in Thessaloniki and the Parthenon metopes from Athens both encountered determined local resistance. While the latter case study is relatively well known, the former was more dramatic. The Incantadas were part of a Roman period portico built into a Jewish home in Thessaloniki. The efforts of the French to dismantle and remove this structure to Paris met resistance both from the Jewish community as well as the Turks and the Greeks of the city. In both cases, the European agents attempting to remove the antiquities reported that the locals believed that the statues were prominent residents of the community who had been turned to stone. Anderson unpacks this story and suggests that they might represent both a sense of local pride in the communities’ past achievements and their sense of petrified helplessness in the face of the authority of the state. The strong reaction to the removal of these antiquities and the parallels between the two incidents hints that local residents of the Ottoman world developed identities that involved interpretation of local antiquities. 

One thing that I did notice was missing from this article was any reflection on Christian traditions of archaeology which date to at least as early as St. Helena’s excavation of the True Cross and continued, at least in hagiographic texts, through the Ottoman and into the modern period. The discovery of lost icons, earlier religious buildings, and various relics through excavation reflects a consistent attitude toward antiquities as well as a view of excavation as reveling a lost part of the past. Considering the constant interaction between various religious groups, it would be interesting to know whether some Christian ideas about the relationship between the past and the present made inroads into larger considerations of archaeological identity. For example, was part of the mystery and power of ancient statues related to the concept of icons or relics which both represented past holy men and women and literally embodied their sacred status.   

For some reason the Byzantine period continues to be overlooked in studies of the post-ancient reception of antiquities. Scholars are eager to identify continuities between the modern and early modern period without giving much consideration of the intervening processes that shaped mnemonic practices. I continue to think that the Byzantine period plays a key role in understanding how early modern and even modern Greeks (or Ottoman subjects) constructed a relationship with their archaeological past. 

News from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

I have this idea that people out there are wondering about The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Our first two books, Punk Archaeology (for free) and Visions of Substance (for free), were pretty successful, and we’d maybe be justified resting on our laurels. 

But, we’re not. 

I spent the last week or so writing a grant proposal that emphasized our cooperative model of production and distribution as an alternative to traditional academic publishing. We hope to get some support for a reboot of our neighborhood history series and perhaps a series of North Dakota Quarterly reprints

More importantly, we have a few more books in the works, and we expect that at least two of them will appear in the next few months. 

Next month, we will release Melissa Gjellstad’s and Danielle Skjelver’s translation of K. J. Skarstein’s War with the Sioux: Norwegians against Indians 1862-1863. This book documents the experience of Norwegian immigrants during the Dakota War and will feature an expanded introduction by Gjellstad, Richard Rothaus, and Dakota Goodhouse. The translation was supported by a grant from NORLA

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I just received some very early galley proofs for the book, and we’re almost there. 

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The interior of the book will need a bit more work, but the editing and layout is almost done. The font, while elegant, is too big, and after some deliberation, I think our readers would prefer the page numbers closer to the outside margins of the pages. 

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I also spent some time this weekend doing a preliminary editing run on a North Dakota Quarterly reprint that brings together contributions on World War I. I think it would be great to publish this collection on Veteran’s Day

So stay tuned to this page over the next few weeks for the latest news on The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota! 

Commemoration in the Bakken

Over the weekend, my colleague Richard Rothaus forwarded me a story about the dangers of working on oil rigs in the Bakken. Much of the article is a rather typical discussion of physical risks of working in the oil patch, the pressure on workers to cut corners, and the lack of adequate safety or corporate accountability. 

The final photo in the article is a cross dedicated at the site of a well blow out that cost the life of an oil field worker. The cross was depicted in front of a sign marking the location of an oil well, and this nicely juxtaposes the most highly visible mark upon the Bakken landscape (the drill rig, oil well, et c.) and a less visible commemorative landscape.

Of course, the cross commemorating the death of a worker in the oil patch runs counter to the dominant narrative of the progress and wealth brought to the region by the oil boom. It reinforces a theme of sacrifice that is not entirely absent from conversations about the risks that oil workers face on a global scale (and it is a topic that comes up regularly in social media discussions of oil patch life). The military-style garb common to some of the larger companies in the patch which features coveralls with American flags underscores a link between patriotic duty and work in the patch. Sacrifice is a persistent subtext associated with work in the oil industry because the risks are very real, but the way in which it is represented reflects a certain ambiguity. Appeals to patriotism suggest that risk is part of national duty, whereas roadside crosses hint at the more personal costs of working in an industry with notoriously shoddy safety standards. It’s hard not to read commemorations like the cross set by the side of the road as a critique of the industry and the foundation of a subversive landscape. 

Over the next month or so, I plan to finish up the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch and send it off on the journey to publication. At the end of the week, though, I plan to head out west to fill in a few gaps. The photo at the end of this article tipped me to being a bit more aware of commemorative markers across the patch. While I’ve endeavored to bring into my Guide sites that form an environmentalist landscape, mark the historical landscape of drilling in the region, and the unavoidable signs of the productive landscape, I’ve included no evidence for the human cost of oil in the region. As I explore the Bakken once more this week, I’ll be on the lookout for this small, but important sites that form an important counterpoint to the productive, industrial landscape of the Bakken.

A Few Friday Varia and Quick Hits

I’m still getting back into the groove of blogging regularly, so I don’t want to push too hard right out of the gate and injure myself.

But I will offer a few quick hits and varia for the weekend, only because I can’t help myself:

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Convergence

My research interests are scattered. They range from workforce housing in the Bakken to intensive pedestrian survey and the archaeology of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. On the one hand, this is exciting because I rarely get bored. On the other hand, I feel like I rarely have an exhaustive grasp of any one issue before having to shift my attention to something more pressing. 

Every now and then, this diversity of research interests demonstrates a bit of convergence. I know that I shouldn’t get too excited about this; after all, despite my efforts to focus broadly, I know that I tend to have particular ways of thinking that inexorably draw my projects into convergence. 

Yesterday, I was working to revise the most recent draft of my slow archaeology paper. It’s slow going (see what I did there?) in part because I took about three months away from the article in the middle of making revisions and, in part, because I’m trying to wrangle a diverse set of ideas and ranging from field practice to the role of place in producing archaeological knowledge. While I was trying to bring these ideas to order, I kept thinking about a paper that I’m scheduled to give the American School of Oriental Research conference this fall on object biography

In that paper, I hope to argue that the idea of object biography, if left focused on physical, material objects reflects only awkwardly contemporary archaeological practice. In fact, the physical engagement with artifacts – even particularly precious or aesthetically attractive “good things” – is rather fleeting in comparison to the time spent with various digital objects related to these physical objects through various processes of mediation.  As Chris Witmore and other have pointed out, the process of mediation or translation from one state to the next preserves (at best) a relationship between the physical artifact and the digital (let’s say) artifact, but we should not confuse this relationship with a form of crass equivalency. The digital artifact is an artifact in its own right with its own history and its own interpretative potential. Digital objects form the basis for most archaeological analysis because they are easily manipulable, portable, and storable. At the same time, we recognize that these objects are only as useful as their relationship to the physical world. 

My ASOR paper will then develop the idea of cloning and reflect on our ability to produce both increasingly accurate models of the physical world (but these models, like a clone or a twin, will not share the same biography as the physical objects,) and our ability to make exact (at least in a relative way) copies of digital objects. Like digital copies of physical objects, however, even these digital copies are subject to different life histories and uses.  

I got pretty excited yesterday afternoon when I realized that these thoughts tie into my ideas of slow archaeology. As field practices have become more efficient (and more limited in terms of time and money), we have come to rely more and more heavily on digital objects for analysis. In other words, our digital clones of the physical world provide a mediated view of the physical world and form the basis for much of our analysis of the physical world. Savvy archaeologists, of course, recognize this and celebrate the digital clones less for their accuracy and more for their utility. At the same time, the pull of the physical world remains strong in archaeology and the pious hope that accuracy in our reconstructions can somehow replace the encounter with artifacts, places, and contexts.

My slow archaeology article takes this argument and goes off the rails with it. I hint  that our growing interest in efficiency in the field, producing highly accurate digital copies of archaeological contexts, and data driven models of archaeological analysis is a response to the frustrated tension between issues of provenience, national claims to archaeological “patrimony,” and increasing limits on time in the field. In effect, producing digital models of the archaeological world is both good archaeology and an extension of colonial practices intent on appropriating the the global past into a master, scientific, “universal” (i.e. Western) narrative. By privileging digital data as the basis for archaeological analysis, pushing to make it freely available, and celebrating its increased accuracy and utility, we are contributing to centuries old negotiation between local and global knowledge.  

A Guide to Byzantine Greece

Each summer my Facebook feed fills study-tour travelogues posted by my faculty colleagues. The best of these trips reflect careful selection of sites, thoughtful readings, and clear learning goals. Most study tours focus on the monuments of ancient Greece, but many of the most visually arresting monuments in the Greek landscape do not date to antiquity. Talking to students participating on the Western Argolid Regional Project for the last couple of year and contributing to study tours in Cyprus, I’ve come to realize that students are generally interested in the post-ancient world in part because they’re simply not as familiar with the narrative, and it has a sense of exotic novelty. In contrast the unfamiliar narrative, Medieval monuments associated are often more immediately accessible to their developing archaeological imaginations because many of them are still standing. 

This realization has led me to think a bit about producing a Guide to Byzantine Greece as a complement to the common itineraries followed by American study tours. 

If I was to do this, or find someone to do it with me, I figure that our guide has to have a couple features to make it useful.

1. Complementary. One of the most significant challenges will be that the guide has to complement traditional study tour itineraries which focus on ancient sites. While I’d love to write a book that leads a group of excited and interested students to the spectacular late Byzantine church of the Panayia Kosmostira in Ferres in Thrace, it’s not a realistic addition to most study tours of Greece. Instead, we have to focus on the main heartland of American study tours which tend to focus on Athens, Delphi, Olympia, the Corinthia and the Argolid. Fortunately, there are plenty of important and interesting post-ancient sites in this area.     

2. Modular. Along with being complementary, we have to write our guide in such a way that it can be used in a modular way. The traditional itinerary-based approach favored by, say, the Blue Guide, is a lovely way to experience Greece, but for the modern study tour which will not stop to enjoy the “lovely principle city of the demos Koutsopodi,” this approach makes dipping into the guide for some information on a particular building or site difficult.    

3. Encounters. The challenge of a modular guide is that they tend to fragment the landscape into distinct, isolated sites, and this works against presenting a cohesive view of Greece in the Medieval period. So, we have to figure out a way to weave unifying narrative throughout the encounters with individual places. We have to assume that the average American study tour might only see one Early Christian basilica or one middle Byzantine church or one “Slavic” cemetery, and our guide will need to find a way to make encounters with these single sites serve as synecdoches for larger trends, processes, or types. 

4. Open Access. It goes without saying that our guide should be available for free in some kind of digital form. I suspect that .pdfs will be the way to go for cross-platform compatibility, but we would also make a print copy of the guide available at as low a cost as possible. This would encourage adoptions (particularly if the book was to function as a supplement to a more traditional guide focused on ancient sites). 

5. Images, Rights, and Plans. One of the challenges of this kind of production is that there are some restrictive rules in place about using images of monuments in Greece and we’d have to reproduce plans which can be a time-consuming and frustrating project. It would be appealing to imagine ways that use the huge quantity of digital sources to supplement our book, but it is probably not useful to expect students to have constant internet connections while in Greece. Connectivity issues could make it more difficult to produce an interactive map that would provide directions to particular sites (although our students and staff this year almost all had phones with good internet connections).

Aside from the technical aspects of this kind of project, the intellectual challenge is very appealing to me. I’m not sure that I have time to do it properly, but I might have a collaborator who has both some time and expertise. For now, I’ll tuck this into my idea box and we’ll see where it goes over the next year or so…

The Historian and the Greek Crisis

As a historian who has spent most of his life studying the ancient and Medieval Greek world in a serious way, the recent financial and political crisis in Greece has caused me more than a little anxiety. That the most recent paroxysm took place while I was in Greece and working away on an archaeological project made the entire experience even more stressful. We had front row seats to the painful political wrangling that would have such a tremendous impact on the lives of our Greek friends and colleagues.

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Now that I’m home, people are naturally curious about what life was like in Greece during the most recent crisis. For obvious reasons, they expect me to have insights into the fiscal and political culture of Greece. As someone who has lived in Greece, I can offer some very superficial insights and recite the same difficult story about cost of austerity, the fear of economic instability, and the resilience of everyday life.

As a historian, however, I’m frankly at a loss. My dedication to the material, political, and religious culture of premodern Greece has equipped me with very few tools to understand the particular complexities of the global economy and the current situation in Greek and European political life. In fact, even specialists in these matters have struggled to see or understand the situation clearly through the rancorous and dissimulating political rhetoric. 

At the same time, the media has continued to evoke Greece’s ancient past to add a bit of national color to a story that has played out on a global scale over the last decade. I’ve blogged about this already, and noted that this lazy lede and headline writing does little more than evoke a watered-down version of the same Classicizing fantasies that contributed to the creation of the Greek state in the 19th century. Recently, observers of the crisis have begun to critique this practice, and a few authors have swapped Classical allusions for those of Byzantium. We can maybe thank Patrick Leigh Fermor’s well-known distinction between the Hellenic and Romaic (i.e. Byzantine) for that. While this distinction offers a framework for Fermor to narrative a rich and sweeping narrative of the Greek landscape, I’ve found that it offers little in terms of real explanatory value. We should probably prefer an approach like Tom Gallant’s recent contribution to Chronos magazine which looks to the relatively recent legacy of Greek-German relations. 

Where does that leave the historian of Ancient and Medieval Greece? It is inevitable that we’ll be asked our opinions on the recent events and expected to be able to offer some kind of deeper understanding of the situation (owing more to our expertise in, say, the Early Christian architecture of the Peloponnesus as much as our time in the country). At the same time, we’re all aware (pdf) of the tragicomic bizarreness that can result when scholars of antiquity wade into contemporary geopolitics. It is humbling to admit that our specific expertise is irrelevant for understanding the current crisis, but it is our obligation to avoid the frankly ahistorical conceit of conflating (our knowledge) of the ancient and modern worlds. At moments of particular frustration, my inability to deploy two decades of historical understanding of Greece to explain or understand the current situation has made me despair the value of the humanities. At the same time, I hope that my background in the humanities has made it possible to recognize and appreciate in a critical way the limits to what we know no matter how frustrating that may be.

Real Tools for Academic Landscapes

Over the last few months, I worked my way through Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009). The book argues for the value of “real,” hard work which he distinguishes from the professions that dominate the white-collar, college-educated, information-based, and academic worlds. Crawford himself straddles the line between academia, where he’s been a fellow at various prestigious universities, and work at his Richmond, Virginia area motorcycle repair shop.  On the whole, Crawford finds the latter work not only more challenging, but also more morally rewarding in that the relentless reality of vintage motorcycles refuse to be re-imagined, to succumb to elusive academic arguments, or problematized in more nuanced ways. If he wanted to make a living, he had to fix real, mechanical problems for his customers. The book is well-known and has been reviewed by more thoughtful critics than me. 

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It was fun to think about this book while I worked away on the landscape of the Western Argolid with the Western Argolid Regional Project. My job on the project was relatively unspecific, but I spent most of my field days walking our survey with one of our talented graduate students team leaders and dividing it into units to be walked by one of our 5 or 6 field teams. On an average day, we walked 5-7 miles through olive, orange, and apricot groves, up and down terrace walls, and through dense patches of maquis. As I’ve noted on this blog before, it was hard work, but at the end of the season, I felt like I had a much more thorough understanding of the landscape than was possible from viewing the splendid World View 3 satellite images on my laptop.

This got me thinking about how important having the right tools for my job is. The right tools were not important in the abstract way that having the right software for my laptop made a job easier, but in a genuinely physical way. For example, having the right pants for hiking around the Greek countryside prevented my legs from being cut to shreds by the thorny vegetation of the Mediterranean. Over the past four or five years, I’ve discovered the value of long-sleeve work shirts to protect my arms from sun, thorns, and insects. Boots are another matter entirely. This summer, I wore a pair of decent (and rather expensive) boots that barely stood up to my day-to-day. They were rugged enough to not disintegrate, but they did not provide enough cushioned to protect my feet from the daily pounding. 

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The right pants, shirts, and (probably the wrong) boots did remind me that there were physical realities to archaeological work that directly related to the kind of data that we collected from the field. I realize that other academic scholars confront these kinds of realities daily – whether they relate to the access hours of an archive or the maintenance of a fussy instrument in lab. At the same time, I wonder whether the relationship between our research and our bodies in archaeology (and this is true of all of the field disciplines) anchors our thinking in the same landscape (and perhaps even a shared physical reality) as the people whom we study. 

Understanding Digital Archaeology

I had a bit of a fun(-ish) surprise when a few of my colleagues directed my attention to a recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology where the authors cite a personal correspondence with me (!), but also, Visions of Substance, the most recent book published by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. (To be fair, one of the coauthors of the article, Brandon Olson, was also a co-editor of the book and an alumnus of both the University of North Dakota’s MA program in history and the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project).

The article was authored by Christopher H. Roosevelt, Peter Cobb, Emanuel Moss, Brandon R. Olson, Sinan Ünlüsoy documents in great detail their system for digital recording and 3D imaging at the Kaymakçı Archaeological Project in Turkey. In almost every way the article is a model presentation of innovative archaeological procedures. And, it’s available open access so go and read it now!

The article sets out in great (and commendable!) detail, the digital systems and infrastructure put in place to allow excavation teams to document their trenches and contexts in as careful way as possible. I have taken to describing the kind of highly nuanced and details documentation practices as part of a move toward “post-stratigraphic” excavation. This does not mean that archaeologists like Roosevelt’s team ignore stratigraphy, but rather that they approach documentation in such a way that stratigraphic relationships represent just one type of archaeological context documented during excavation. For example, their system allows for them to record single objects as discrete contexts and this unique contextual situation remains the primary identifier of these objects within their recording system. At the same time, the incredibly sensitive photographic, volumetric recording techniques documented in the article capture subtle aspects of archaeological work, such as the fine lines produced by the brooms used to clean the trench for photography, that do not reflect to stratigraphic processes. Finally, the emphasis on volumetric reconstruction of archaeological contexts moves the project beyond the “black boxes” representing stratigraphic contexts in the Harris Matrix and opens a space for more subtle reading of site formation processes that can, for example, distinguish between simple and continuous depositional events. This is all very cool.    

The article also represents a particular strain of archaeological thought summarized in its title, “Archaeology is Destruction” which strikes through the word “destruction” and replaces it with “digitization.” The core idea behind this particular line of archaeological reasoning is that one major goal of archaeology should be to document as thoroughly as possible the contexts and relationships destroyed through excavation. As a result, documenting for the sake of documenting is a reasonable approach to archaeological field practices and procedures. Digitization and digital tools can provide a more efficient and robust means for gathering information at trench side.

The other strain of archaeological thinking views the work of the archaeologist as primarily creative. Excavation is the work of producing archaeological knowledge and it a fundamentally productive endeavor. Following this approach, the goal of archaeological practice is to produce arguments that shed light on both the past and our present. 

To be clear, these two approaches to archaeological work are rarely mutually exclusive in practice. Most archaeologists both engage in field work to answer specific questions and recognize archaeological evidence as a particularly fragile and limited resource. As a result, good archaeologists engage in excavation and field practices in a deliberate, careful, and systematic way and remain aware that their research goals represent a point in an ongoing conversation about the meaning of the past. Since archaeological evidence is – to some extent – limited, archaeologists constantly seek to avoid a “tragedy of the commons” by balancing the arrogant view that one’s work will produce the final word on a subject against practices that serve primarily as an apologia for the destructive character of excavation. If the balance tips too far in either direction, archaeological practices diminish the ethical justification for the discipline.

The Roosevelt et al. article steers well clear of these two potential pitfalls (as does most archaeological work). They demonstrate that their sophisticated, integrated, digital approach to field recording can document excavation both in a more detailed way and with greater efficiency. The authors do not, however, explain how their post-stratigraphic (to use my term) approach actually results in new archaeological knowledge.

My name was invoked by the authors as someone who has argued that a greater focus on archaeological efficiency through digital tools runs the risk of de-skilling archaeologists. I have argued in various places that “traditional” archaeological practices (which rely on older forms of technology) like writing in trench notebooks longhand, drawing individual contexts, and separating extraneous details from relevant evidence at trench side, locates the primary space of archaeological interpretation at the edge of the trowel, trench, or context. In other words, the act of excavation is not destruction, but the production of archaeological knowledge, and while I admit to the need for intermediate steps that document the way in which the archaeologist produced this knowledge, the ultimate goal is always the archaeological argument. Trench side documentation is an extension of argument making.

I’ve tended to privilege practices that slow the process of documentation on the trench side and foreground deliberate, embodied knowledge grounded in practices like manual illustration and long-hand written, narrative style notebooks. My argument for the superiority of these practices has less to do with the results that they produce, which the last fifty or even 100 years of scholarship amply demonstrates, than the pitfalls that they avoid. For example, calls to excavate more efficiently and to produce more robust datasets redouble the pressure on archaeologists to publish not just their data (although that’s good), but also their analysis. Storerooms full of unpublished material are salutary reminders that digging more does not necessary result in the production of more disciplinary knowledge, and with increased efficiency comes the increased temptation to dig more.

Likewise, I remain skeptical of claims that more efficient documentation opens up time and opportunities for more reflective engagement with the archaeological process. One of the great claims of modern industrial life is that machines would make possible more leisure time for creativity, recreation, and family life. Any growth in leisure time over the past two centuries, however, owes more to the push back against the relentless pursuit of efficiency by labor critics and unions than any moderation on the part of industrial class. If archaeologists continue to occupy the rhetorical position that excavation is destruction, increased efficiency, detail, and documentation will persist as ethical imperatives that are difficult to dislodge in the name of trench-side analysis. I don’t doubt that it is possible to use technology to allow more opportunities to reflect, analyze, and interpret, but considering the tradition of technological innovation in modern, industrial societies, I think it is reasonable to expect that digital innovators demonstrate the interpretative gains from the use of technology.

I will continue to “fret” about the de-skilling of the archaeological workforce through practices that fragment the experience of field walking or excavating. The kind of embodied knowledge typical of pre-industrial craft production produced individuals who have command over most aspects of their work. Archaeology, of course, is a modern science and over the past century has sought ways to regiment knowledge production as a way of improving consistency, efficiency, and results. At the same time, archaeologists have clung fiercely to the idea of craft knowledge. Some excavators, illustrators, and even field walkers are better than others and, as a result, no amount of standardization in practice will achieve perfect consistency in data production. As workflows fragment, however, and narrative notebooks give way to standardized forms, context sheets, digital models, and other regularized expression of trench-side or survey unit knowledge, the significance of this embodied knowledge recedes into the background. Foregrounded, instead, is the systematized regularity of digital data which de-authorizes, overwrites, and “black boxes” the complexities of excavation and survey. The idea that digital technologies do less to deskill archaeologists and more to produce archaeologists as skilled, digital practitioners is similar to the claim that 19th century craft workers simply developed the new skills necessary to thrive on the assembly line. Archaeological skills are grounded in archaeology, not the attendant technologies relevant (or even vital) to the field. (And this comes not from someone who fancies himself a craftsman-archaeologist, but from someone intensely aware of the gap between the kind of knowledge that I posses as a manager of digital workflows and data and people with patiently acquired field knowledge.)

Finally, I continue to be disturbed by the tensions between spatial locus of archaeological work (and the imperative that our field continues to embrace that some forms of archaeology – objects, sites, et c. – remain local), and the displacement that occurs with digital recording of archaeological contexts. By recording spaces, objects, and deposits in such detail that archaeologists can remove these “digital surrogates” from the limits of the archaeological site, we begin to test the concept that that archaeological work is fundamentally local. While we’re not yet to the point where entire sites can be reconstructed in computer labs and 3D clones of objects studied, this is now within the realm of possibility. Soon, the only limit on our ability to transport highly accurate digital versions of artifacts and archaeological sites around the world will be our willingness to do so. 

So, articles like Roosevelt et al.’s tend to leave me a bit cold even if their willingness to share their innovation and work flows are commendable. Maybe I’d find their descriptions more compelling if they demonstrated how the increased resolution, efficiency, and technologies advanced the particular arguments that they sought to make about the history of the site or address particular nuances present in their project’s research questions. Or maybe I’m just a cranky, “old” archaeologist who would prefer to dance with the devil he knows than to take on a new partner.