Pallets and Epoiesen

When I get overwhelmed with things to do or get stuck with a project that seems insurmountable, I start to think up new projects. In fact, over sabbatical, I got stuck and ended up writing a 35,000+ word little book. 

I’ve been pretty unproductive since I’ve been home and that’s pushed my mind to drift off to new projects that (like all projects on their first days) have more potential to produce something tangible (rather than the endless editing of an article or introduction that is almost ready for primetime, but can also endure constant tweaking as we search for the elusive edge!). So I decided to spend a few hours this morning working on a draft of an article to submit to Shawn Graham’s brilliant new project Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement and Archaeology. It has a ton of interesting features including a open comment and review through, open access licensing options, submissions in mark-up, an open and adventurous scope, and a great editorial board.

I have this idea that I want to publish a short (i.e. <5000 word) article in Epoiesen on my stalled “pallet project.” This spring I spent the better part of several NASCAR races coding photographs from my trips to the Bakken oil patch. I literally coded hundreds of pallets. Last summer, I did a research trip to a pallet reconditioning and redistribution center, collected some bibliography on pallets, the whitewood industry, and containerization, and took notes and photographs on the use of pallets in the Greek countryside.

What I’d like to do is offer pallets as a kind of physical analogue for a number of larger trends in the global economy. On the one hand, the ad hoc use of pallets (and their place in adhocism) evokes certain elements of the “sharing economy” (broadly construed) from the flow of pallets between individuals for a wide array of improvisation to the use of redistribution centers where used pallets  (also known as cores) are repaired and made available once again to manufactures and shippers. Pallets travel with bulk goods of various kinds from distribution or manufacturing centers and then build up at highly distributed locations where pallet recyclers collect them, repair them (if necessary), and re-sell them back to manufacturing or distribution centers. The system for the recirculation of pallets is highly decentralized and this has the occasional side effect of pallets ending up rural areas where there is little demand (and little infrastructure for them to re-enter the market), and the effort to privatize pallet pools by three large companies has strained the circulation of traditional whitewood pallets in different ways. The competition between closed pool pallet companies (who own their pallets, control their circulation, and look to stabilize supply) and the open pool whitewood pallet circulation provides an interesting analogy for the tensions between open and closed pools in almost any economic or cultural system (and manifests some of the same tensions that exist within the sharing economy).

The pooling of pallets in places in like the Bakken present the intersection of opportunity and circumstance. Temporary housing in the Bakken during the height of the oil boom constantly looked to improvise in low-cost ways; at the same time, whitewood pallets were ubiquitous in the region owing to the absence of a pallet recycling center in Williston or Minot contributed to the collecting of pallets in the Bakken. This coincidence of need and opportunity produced innovation in temporary Bakken housing and speaks – in some ways – to the productive potential of open pool systems as well as the adhocism present in Bakken building practices.

In a sense, my submission to Epoiesen will have an essayistic edge, but fully embrace the meaning of the term and the maker culture in which this new journal project will embrace. Now I just have to become more familiar with markup (and complete that Hesperia article, the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, my little corner of the final report for WARP, the article on the Atari excavations, and various other shining objects that come my way). 

428 AD

I am not sure how I missed the English translation of Giusto Traina’s 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (Princeton 2009), but I did. It’s a wonderful book. The book follows a circuit around the Mediterranean world in the year 428 starting in Antioch and then Armenia, before moving through the capital and the Balkans, Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, Egypt, Persia and Palestine. At each stop, Traina considers the events taking place in one year, 428, with just enough attention to the connections between regions to weave a compelling tapestry to the Roman Empire in the early 5th century.

My main interest in the book – other than the lucid and engaging narrative – is Traina’s use of time and space to structure his work. It defies traditional historical notions of linear causality by collapsing dense networks of political and social relations (and texts) into a single year and then stretching this year across the Braudelian Mediterranean basin.

Time. The main argument in the book is tied to its approach to the past. Rather than unpacking a particular historical problem, Taina’s book used the concept of time to organize the events of the Roman Empire. While this might seem fundamental to the historians’ craft, in most historical works time takes a back seat to the relentless press of causality. Causality can subvert temporally proximate events, collapse or distend distances, overwrite the linearity implicit in calendars. Traina specifically considers non-linearity in history by presenting simultaneity as a way to order his work and leaving aside questions of causality. This approach reminds me of Benedict Anderson’s critique of the modern novel and how to provided a narrative tool for the kind of simultaneity required to support “imagined communities” on a global scale. Traina’s use of time to frame his work is profoundly modern.    

Space. At the same time as his modern approach to the Roman time is bracketed with a distinctly ancient concept of space. Drawing on a long tradition in the study of the Late Antique and Byzantine world, Traina is not particularly concerned with formal borders and instead explores what Obelensky and others have called the “Byzantine commonwealth” (which is, I recognize, a modern concept serving to describe an ancient conception of space).

Traina recognizes the porosity of borders and deeply interconnected world of the Mediterranean basin where social relationships, ecclesiastical politics, and historical traditions connect communities as much as the formal apparatus of the state. By ignoring any concept of formal boundaries (whether ancient or modern), Traina is able to approach the Late Roman world at a level defined by networks of relations rather than lines on the map.

This has an impact on time and causality as well, of course. Whereas Benedict Anderson’s idea of “empty time” (ready to be filled by a growing sense of simultaneity) depended upon the sense of a contracting and interrelated world, Traina’s segmented moves around the Late Roman world emphasized the discontinuities within the ancient Mediterranean even among the Late Antique elite whose shared culture Peter Brown’s exploration of paideia so famously celebrated.  If Anderson’s treatment of imagined communities evokes a world that was approaching our own, Traina’s world presented an interesting tension between time and space (and social organization) that challenged the reader to consider how fundamentally different antiquity was to our own world.

Texts and Time. Of course, to define the world in a single year, no matter how expansively, Traina leans heavily on texts. Some of those texts are contemporary with 428 and others look back. At his best, Traina weaves these texts together seamlessly bringing together hagiography, history, epigraphy, and theological into an elegant tapestry. At times, however, the view of the present and past become too neatly conflated. A hagiographic text has a very different view of the world than a history or a contemporary inscription, and, perhaps more importantly, historians and hagiographers have very different views of both the past and the present. For example, hagiographic work often conflated contemporary and Biblical time and even in pagan lives – like Marinus’s Life of Proclus – there is a tendency toward romantic elision between the past and the present that careful scholars have struggled to unpack. (For example, were sites like the temple of Asklepius and Dionysus still functioning in Proclus’s day or were the reference to these sites anachronistic?). Walking through the Palestinian countryside with hagiographic texts and pilgrim narratives intentionally superimposed the Biblical past with the present obscuring the year 428 under an overburden of memories. 

If you happened to miss the publication of this book like I did, by all means go and read it. It’s only 130 some pages and a compelling perspective on what it meant to read, write, live and travel in a single year in Late Antiquity

Defining Early Christian Archaeology

Over the weekend, David Pettegrew and I have been putting the finishing touches on the introduction to our Oxford Handbook to Early Christian Archaeology. We’re not only engaged in our typical struggled between length and content, but I also find myself returning again and again to the definition of Early Christian archaeology. Recently, I’ve been thinking a good bit about later late antiquity and the 7th century, in particular. While it is without a doubt that most of the connections, institutions, and trends present in the 7th century represent continuity with the preceding centuries and are properly described as part of “Late Antiquity” (whatever the limitations of this term), it is less clear whether we should see the 7th century as part of the Early Christian centuries or sufficiently far removed to be better associated with Medieval or Byzantine Christianity.

Determining the chronological limits to Early Christian archaeology involves defining what we mean by an Early Christian archaeology. To some extent, we can rely on the historiography which assigns the usual array of dates from Constantine and the peace of the church to late 5th century or the  reign of Justinian. In many ways these dates are associated with either political events in the life of the church (like the reign of Constantine) or dates that are political and “secular” in nature such as the reign of Theodosius and his legislation against paganism, the various sacks of Rome, or the death of a particular emperor. In many ways, these dates coincide with episodes of traditional interest among scholars of antiquity and late antiquity and represent the close connections between the study of late antique archaeology and the archaeology of Early Christianity.

The particular challenge of an archaeology of religion is that beliefs tend to leave very complicated traces in the material record. Sites like the famous fountain of the lamps at Corinth, for example, with their assemblage of inscribed lamps baring Christian, pagan, and completely ambiguous sentiments. These kinds of sites are not terribly unusual in the Mediterranean and, like the presence of pagan imagery on the floors of Early Christian churches, paint a picture where complicated notions of belief and religious identity are not clear cut and obvious in the material record (and this may well reflects the ambiguity of ancient religion (all religion?)). All this is to suggest that an archaeology of Early Christianity offers only a rather coarse tool to understand the spread of Christianity as a system of belief. This tends to be a major area of focus for scholars interested in the Early Christian period irrespective of methods.

With the archaeology of religion remaining a challenging intellectual task, scholars have looked to connections between the study of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity as a plausible reason to extend our definition of Early Christianity into the 7th century and to argue that the networks and relationships in which Early Christianity developed persisted into the 7th and 8th centuries in many parts of the Mediterranean. In this context, an Early Christian archaeology could well be defined by the networks that allowed for Christian material culture to circulate in the Mediterranean. The spaces of interaction present in this network ensured that distinctive development of Christian forms of representation and perhaps offer a useful perspective on understanding the development of Christianity as a system of representation. 

At the same time, recent discussion of archaeological methods, particular those focused on late antique archaeology, have considered whether there are distinctive methods that define an archaeology of late antiquity. This could, of course, be applied to the study of Early Christianity. There are, of course, types of monuments that are characteristic of the rise of the Christianity, particularly basilica-style churches, and particular questions that are salient to the study of Christian practices (i.e. liturgy, burials, and iconography) associated with those buildings. Whether these requirements rise the level of methodological concerns is difficult to say, but unlikely. Similarly, Christian burials (on a small scale) and Christian landscapes (on a larger scale) offer two extremes that might benefit distinctive methods and attendant methodologies. Indeed, some recent scholarship has hinted that Christian (and late pagan) ways of viewing the landscape has pushed archaeologists to think about existing sites in different ways. The long tradition of Christian archaeology and the wide range of techniques and levels of documentation used to publish Christian monuments presents an opportunity for archaeologists of this period to synthesize different traditions, types of evidence, and levels of certitude. This approach to studying Christian landscapes offers some new interpretative opportunities , but perhaps these have not risen to the level of methodology.

To return to the point of this post, as we wrap up the introduction to our Oxford Handbook, we are reminded of the challenge of defining Early Christian archaeology in terms of chronology, themes, and methods. None of these criteria are significant enough alone to map out a discrete (or unique) field of study, but perhaps in combination they set out the limits to what an Early Christian archaeology can know.

The Cost of Digital Archaeological Data

For the last ten years or so, I’ve had an installation of Omeka running on a University of North Dakota server. Because of budget cuts and administrative changes, they will begin charging us for our server space and service on a monthly basis. Since this is not a very stable environment for archiving or publishing data (and better suited for people whose data has a specific use life), I will have to migrate my data elsewhere. This isn’t a huge crisis (it’s just a mini-crisis), because most of what I have on this server is interesting, but not super useful for anyone other than myself and my colleagues.

There is one exception, and that is the 650 images associated with the abandoned settlement of Lakka Skoutara. David Pettegrew and I documented this site with photography for over a decade and these photographs provide a remarkable visual record of archaeological formation processes and the processes associated with abandonment in the rural Greek landscape. Check them out here.

It goes without saying that we wanted to have these in a more permanent archive with stable identifiers and substantial metadata so that they can be cited by scholars (including us in a forthcoming article). We requested a quote from a well-regarded digital archive for our photos and data. The standard rate was $5 per file so to archive these images it would cost about $3200 which is a bit more than I had budgets, but in a fundamental sense, not unreasonable. The collection of photographs is relatively small because, in part, many of the original photographs were taken with slide film. The developing cost of slides alone discouraged us from collecting “too many” photographs from the field.

In the Bakken, for example, where we have only used digital data collection (photo, video, audio recordings), and collected close to 10,000 files. Assuming there are no economies of scale, this would cost $50,000 to archive. This is approximately twice the cost of field work. My friend Dimitri Nakassis’s project offers another example of how digital data has expanded. He is doing RTI imaging of around 1000 Linear B tablets. Each RTI image is composed of approximately 50 photos. To archive this at the rates quoted to me about would cost over a quarter of a million dollars. While Dimitri’s project is a large, multi-year undertaking, it probably still had a total budget of little more than $50,000. In other words, archiving his photographs could run to over 5 times the cost of fieldwork. A large field project with a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars could easily produce an assemblage of files that could cost into the millions to archive. 

Update: Dimitri noted on Twitter that so far his RTI project has produced 311, 302 files which at $5 per file would cost a not-insignificant $1,556,510 to archive or approximately 30 times the cost of the producing the images.

Thinking about these numbers got me thinking a bit more about how digital tools in archaeology will shape the discipline. While archiving archaeological data – even in analogue forms – has always been a requirement for any archaeological project, not to mention the need to store and preserve finds and sites. But these expenses are often distributed through an existing system that ranges from institutional archives at universities to archaeological storerooms and museums frequently funded by host countries. In other words, traditional practice in archaeological work (as well as other research) provides established infrastructure within which projects can work in economically efficient ways.

Digital tools and digital data, however, still require a massive investment (and with the precarious situation of university research funding and major grant projects from the NEH) and some of that investment will devolve on projects, and the numbers that I’ve just recently encountered suggest that the investment on the part of projects will likely be considerable! 

Cyprus in the 7th and 8th centuries

Over the past week or so, I’ve worked my way through Luca Zavagno’s new book, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (AD 600-800): An Island in Transition (Routledge 2017). As the title suggests, the book examines the 7th and 8th centuries on the island and brings together in a single volume arguments that Zavagno had made in a number of significant articles in Dumbarton Oaks PapersReti Medievali Rivista, Byzantion, and the Mediterranean Historical Review. He argues that the position of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean allowed it to enjoy significant interregional connectivity with Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa, the Aegean, and the Levant throughout this period, and this allowed for a remarkably resilient economic and social structure on the island that allowed it to survive the disruption of the weakening Roman trade networks (particularly the annona), Arab raids and other military interventions, and the island’s changing place within the political organization of the Mediterranean. Zavagno builds his argument on archaeological sources and challenges ideas grounded in texts that by the late-7th century, the island and the ancient Mediterranean had entered a period of terminal decline.

In many ways, Zavagno’s book will complement David Metcalf’s recent effort to aggregate evidence for Byzantine Cyprus, and follow current trends toward reconsidering the 7th and 8th century Eastern Mediterranean in light of revised ceramic chronologies that have fueled a renewed skepticism toward the apocalyptic narratives so common in textual sources. In many ways, this work is bringing to fruition Peter Brown’s famous arguments for a long late antiquity extending the basic sinews of the Roman (and ancient world) in the 8th century across the Eastern Mediterranean.

I won’t write a full review of this book (yet?), but have a few bullet point type observations:

1. Middle Ground. Like Greg Fisher’s recent book on the Late Roman Near East, Zavagno draws upon  Richard White’s idea of “middle ground” to describe the generative character of the encounter between the Late Roman, Christian, Greek-speaking polities and economic networks of antiquity, and the emerging Arab, Muslim, polities of the Levant and North Africa over the course of the 7th century. To Zavagno’s credit, the manages to avoid a view of the middle ground that essentializes the influences on Cyprus as Christian/Muslim, Greek/Arab, Byzantine/Islamic. In fact, Zavagno recognizes the echoes of the recent political situation in Cyprus in the interpretations of the so-called “condominium” period on the island when scholars speculated that Byzantine and Arab states jointly administered the island’s fiscal and political organization. This arrangement is unlikely, and in its place, Zavagno suggested a more fluid political and economic structure where various relationships across the region, including, but not limited to those mediated by centralize political entities in Constantinople or Damascus, constantly negotiated their stake in the island. The residents of the island itself and its institutions – ranging from the church to imperial and local elites – also contributed to this network of negotiated arrangements which occasionally produced relatively large-scale violence, like raids, and the payments of taxes, but often resolved itself in myriad local actions across a range of institutions and communities, including visits by Arab merchants, Arab settlers on the island, and not excluding the possibility of an Arab garrison.

2. Political and Economic Continuity. As one might expect, Zavagno sees the fluidity of the middle ground as allowing for a remarkable level of political and economic continuity. By examining the archaeological record carefully and with particular attention to recently revised ceramic chronologies, Zavagno is able to argue that the economic relationships between Cyprus and the surrounding regions persisted in the late-7th and 8th centuries. Late Roman D ware, for example, once thought to fall out of producing by the late 7th century has not been shown to persist into the 8th or even 9th. Our ability to recognize and date various forms of Late Roman amphora dating to the late 7th and 8th centuries have similarly allowed archaeologists to trace the persistence of economic connection in the region in new ways. Recently published seals, for example, have demonstrated that continued institutional relationships between Byzantine institutions and local elites as well as between ecclesiastical communities and various elites. These have, in turn, thrown the limited evidence in textual sources (particularly hagiography) for continued contact across the region into higher relief. 

This persistence of ties between Cyprus and institutions, individuals, and communities, almost certainly supported some continuity in settlement both in urban and rural areas. The decline of rural and coastal communities – like our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria – or more marginal settlements like Kalavassos-Kopetra, may reflect shifts in the intensity of economic connections with the surrounding regions and the emergence of a more contingent and dynamic rural settlement structure designed to take advantage of the middle ground of the 7th and 8th century while continuing to exploit longterm environmental and cultural resources present on the island. Cities likewise enduring the changing access to administrative resources and institutional patterns while continuing to function as population centers and nodes of local authority across the island well into the 8th century. 

3. Political and Economic Contingency. Continuity on Cyprus, then was mitigated by the needs to be responsive to the contingent world of White’s middle ground. I was particularly intrigued by Zavagno’s use of the term “resilience” to describe Cypriot communities and institutions. Too often, I think, we imagine local economies and institutions as the products of centralized fiat, and this is certainly true for Late Antiquity where so much archaeological and historical visibility for regions like Cyprus depends upon systems shaped by administrative connections or texts that provide glimpses of the margins from the center.

For Zavagno, the visibility of this evidence presents an illusory stability for Cypriot landscapes. As the relationship with the center – particularly the core imperial lands of the Aegean and Asia Minor – underwent change, the visibility of the connections between Cyprus and the wider region became more contingent and fluid. This is different from arguing that these connections disappeared. In fact, Zavagno insists that connections between Cyprus and the region continue to function but in more contingent and fluid ways that speak to the resilience of Cypriot communities, cities, and settlements as they negotiated new economic relationships amid various competing influences. 

This is clever stuff and while the argument is not entirely compelling (other than as a salutary reminder that the absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence), it offers a persuasive hypothesis that should shape continued scrutiny of Cypriot material culture. Hand-made vessels, objects like cooking and utility wares, and less visible (or widely recognized) activities associated with building traditions, decorative arts, and agricultural production may well provide hints at contingent practices engaged on a generational scale that often go overlooked in textual studies and archaeology’s tendency to privilege long-term economic and social trends.   

4. The Long Late Antiquity. This book represents a really nice contribution to recent trends toward a longer Late Antiquity. From the 18th century, scholars have seen Late Antiquity as both a period of decline and a period that generated many of the core institutions of the Western world. The break between the ancient world and the Middle Ages reflects no only a key chronological division in our understanding of the past, but one that defines disciplinary boundaries among academics with Classicists working before the Middle Ages and the Medievalists working after. Moreover, since the early 20th century, the division between the ancient and Medieval world has also been geographic with the loss of the Near East and North Africa to the Roman Empire marking a more or less permanent break between the Western, Christian world, and the Eastern, Muslim one.

By challenging the tidiness of this break on the island of Cyprus (and by implication and comparison elsewhere), Zavagno’s book (and the other major and minor works dealing with the 7th century) begins to pick at the very seams of both our academic discipline-making and our definition of what it means to be “western” and “eastern.” Zavagno does not go in for sweeping statements, but on a granular level he is clear. Cyprus in Late Antiquity absorbed influences from around the Mediterranean through travelers, trade, institutional ties, and economic relationships. This was both a characteristic of Cyprus and its insular location, but not also reflected larger trends in connections between regions in the wider Mediterranean. As a result, the long-standing idea of a break between east and west, Christian and Muslim, ancient and Medieval increasingly appears to be gentle elision throughout the 7th and 8th centuries where cultures mingled and mediated in local ways. The birth of the West (if this retains any value), then, comes from myriad local engagements that defied any simple dichotomies.  

5. What is Culture? The biggest critique that I have with this book, which is remarkably detailed and valuable, is that the island of Cyprus sometimes comes across as too unified an object of study. The sites on Cyprus, as some of our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria showed – had remarkable variation in terms of material culture. The distribution of fine wares, alone, suggest that issues other than access and chronology shaped the preference for one kind of table ware over another. The same can probably be said for church decoration, architecture, and other aspects of daily life (particular that associated with display).

The variation across Cyprus, of course, speaks to the varying levels and kinds of engagement with other regions, but also undermines the idea that Cyprus is a useful object of study. The tendency to conflate or attempt to synthesize settlement types on the island, material culture, and even the fate of cities and the countryside, reflects a concession to modern political boundaries that might at times subvert his larger argument for middle ground. 

Moreover, I wonder whether the tendency to see Cyprus as an place unto itself (in an insular ways, as it were), has limited the impact of the remarkable archaeological work on the island in larger considerations of the Late Roman Near East. Zavagno does a great job looking beyond the shores of Cyprus for comparanda and evidence for larger trends and connections. At the same time, I wonder whether our view of Cyprus would be much improved if we considered the sites on the island as extensions of the Levant, Anatolia, and even Egypt and North Africa? 

6. An Archaeological Quibble. This is really just a quibble, but at times, I found Zavagno’s description of archaeological contexts occasionally not compelling. While the book is not, strictly speaking, the publication of a site, but a book that uses a range of published archaeological data to make an argument, there were times when I wondered whether the quality and character of the excavations would sustain the kind of arguments that Zavagno was building. For example, late examples of Late Roman D ware (Cypriot Red Slip) in a sealed deposit with late-8th century with glazed white wares from Constantinople does not make a compelling case for LRD wares being 8th century without much more detail. In fact, all things being equal it would seem that the LRD wares are residual, but without more detail, it is impossible for me to know for certain.

In the end, this is quibble and my other critique has more to do with the book that I’d write than an actual critique of Zavagno’s book. As it stands, this book is a useful addition to the growing body of work on the 7th century. 

Authenticity in (Atari) Archaeology

I’ve been thinking a bit about authenticity in archaeology lately. I know I should be thinking about the 7th century, Early Christian archaeology, Late Roman and Hellenistic Cyprus, or the Bakken oil patch, but on a leisurely bike ride yesterday afternoon, I let myself think about the Atari excavations. 

To my mind, the key issue that the Atari excavations allow us to explore is the issue of authenticity in archaeological work. From the first encounter with the documentary team who invited us to participate in the project, there was a tension between the goals of the filmmakers (who had the funding to pull this kind of project off) and our interests as archaeologists. In some cases, these interests overlapped; for example, it is clear that the filmmakers saw us as validating – to some extent – the results of the project, at least within the context of the documentary narrative. To this end, they offered us limited, but not insignificant access to the planning, the excavation process, and the finds.

The limitations of this access, however, demonstrate the ragged edge of filmmaker’s trust as they sought both to ensure that their investment produced results, but also to preserve and capture the moment of discovery. The narrative arc of the performance of excavation required some doubt over whether the games would be found, the gradual building of tension as the excavations proceeded without results, and the sensational moment when the archaeologists and filmmakers could present the finds the assembled crowds. The desire for this experience and this performance shaped the archaeological processes to a very real extent, but at the same time, the opening of the landfill, the assemblage associated with the Atari games, and our efforts to document the excavations were not inauthentic, even if the pace of work and the moment of discovery had more to do with a dramatic climax than the actual uncovering of the games. 

The finds themselves likewise have a story that depends on their authenticity. The games themselves were not particularly rare, and even the famously unsuccessful E.T. game sold over a million copies and these regularly appeared on Ebay and other auction sites. The relative rarity of the excavated examples, however, made the E.T. (and other games excavated) far more valuable and desirable. As a result, they fetched prices of well over $100 and sometimes over $500 on Ebay and came accompanies with a City of Alamogordo inventory tag and a certificate of authenticity. This established the origins of the game in the Alamogordo landfill and tied the game itself to the narrative of excavation.

Ancient artifacts similarly acquire authenticity through their provenience which is often grounded in the authority of prominent collectors, documentation, and sometimes archaeologists. Knowing an object is “real” and that it comes from a particular region or even site authorized the object to contribute to archaeological knowledge making. In the best instances, archaeological methods offer an authenticating narrative for objects. In worst scenarios, careful examination and familiarity with similar artifacts and typologies will authenticate the antiquity of an object, and it is sometimes possible use comparisons to establish the provenience of an object even when excavated contexts are not available (as in the case of looting).

The degree to which the Atari games, modern artifacts, relied upon archaeological context for their value is complex. On the one hand, their associated with the Alamogordo landfill was important for assigning both economic and cultural value to the objects. On the other hand, just because the objects were excavated and have provenience does not necessarily make them valuable. A game excavated from a landfill in Fargo or excavated from a collapsed split-level house has the same claim to archaeological integrity, but would not have the same value. The value assigned to these games was partly created through the urban legends associated with the “Atari burial ground” that circulated widely on the internet for years prior to the excavations in Alamogordo. (This recognizes, of course, that not all excavated objects have the same value and that complex networks of cultural and social meaning inform the value assigned to ancient artifacts as well. A course amphora sherd has less cultural value than a well-preserved black-glazed pot.)

The relationship between authenticity and value, of course, is complicated and needs to be unpacked especially in the case of the Atari games which have both clearly documented monetary value and cultural value. This examination also opens the door to some critical reflection on the role of archaeology in moving an object from the realm of commodity to cultural artifact. As this week’s news has shown, it’s not cool or good to buy and sell antiquities, in large part because it encourages the destruction of archaeological sites by looters, but also because it makes our shared past a matter from private exchange rather than public edification. Objects like the Atari games may be exempt from the concerns of archaeologists in part because the enthusiasm to start looting landfills looking for similar deposits seems pretty muted. At the same time, these games do represent a particular confluence of processes – from the rise of the Internet to the decline and fall the Atari empire – that warranted their inclusion in museum collections around the world. Whether these same objects should be available for sale remains an interesting question to consider.

Future Directions in Early Christian Archaeology

Over the last few weeks, David Pettegrew and I have been slowly working to revise our introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. The final part to be written was a brief section on the prospect for an archaeology of Early Christianity. While one could identify any number of significant future lines of research for Early Christian archaeology (in fact, this could be an article in its own right), I focus on a number of areas which I think reflect the growing convergence of Early Christian archaeology, the archaeology of Late Antiquity, and trends within the larger field of world archaeology.

Nothing, of course, is cast in stone. So, let me know what you think:

As the archaeology of Early Christianity continues to converge with major currents in world archaeology, it continues a trajectory that fortifies archaeology as an independent source of knowledge about the Early Christian past and expand and complicated perspectives offered by sophisticated reading of Early Christian texts. This confluence opens up Early Christian archaeology to new research directions but also exposes the discipline to new challenges grounded the complicated issues of chronological and geographic definition and methods and questions. At the same time, Early Christian archaeology remains committed to traditional sites of biblical importance, architectural forms, and iconographic traditions that ensures continuity with the long tradition of Early Christian archaeology.

The archaeology of Late Antiquity, for example, has increasingly extended the chronological and geographic limits of the ancient world beyond the conventional definitions of the discipline of Classical or Mediterranean archaeology. As efforts to refine the chronologies of Late Roman sites and monuments have demonstrated that the economic, social, and cultural relationships that defined the ancient world persisted centuries later than earlier scholars had anticipated. Scholars have increasingly subjected to scrutiny arguments for traditional divide between Christian Europe and Muslim Asia and Africa marking the end of antiquity. As a result, it now appears that conversion to Christianity was a much longer and less thorough process, longstanding economic relationships and expectations persisted into the 7th and 8th centuries, and Early Christianity communities continued to thrive even during the disruptions of the Arab invasions of Asia and North Africa. Complementing the expanded chronological definition of the Late Antique world is an expanded geographic range. With antiquity no longer being limited to simply the Mediterranean basin, there is a greater interest in exploring the spread economic and even political relationships, including the Christian church, across Asia and into Northern Europe. The chronological and geographic redefinition of Late Antiquity is part of a larger process of redefining the origins of the West at the end of the ancient world, and the distinct place of Christianity within this narrative will continue to play a key role in this reconsideration as well.

The convergence of Early Christianity archaeology with the larger discipline of Mediterranean archaeology has also expanded the context in which scholars have understood Early Christian monuments and artifacts. While churches continue to represent examples of Christian iconography, provide insights into liturgical practices, and trace the contours of Christianization, churches also represent important manifestations of economic organization, administrative functions, and even social order. Phenomena like pilgrimage, the production of objects with Christian symbols, or the craft workers required to decorate monumental Christian buildings provide significant evidence for organization of labor, connections between regions, and the economic health of communities. Churches and artifacts associated with Christian practice have come to stand as surrogates for settlement, particularly in the countryside and contributed to arguments for rural settlement patterns and integration of rural and urban life in the Roman world.

The continued interest in scientific practices range from efforts to date Early Christian monuments using dendrochronology or C-14 to the use of remote sensing technology to document buildings without excavation. These advances have expanded the traditional tool kit of archaeologists that has for so long depended upon excavation, seriation, typologies, and stratigraphy to produce meaningful, if relative, chronological relationships between sites and between classes of artifacts. The use of carbon-14 dating, dendrochronology, and other scientific approaches to measuring absolute age will refine archaeologists’ ability to link archaeological material to events more closely datable in textual sources. At the same time, the more systematic use of remote sensing technologies to locate and identify buildings beneath the surface of the ground offers a way to expand the number of known buildings especially in remote or difficult of access locations where traditional excavation is simply unviable. Finally, greater attention to the chemical composition of ceramics, plaster in wall painting, and even marble has played a growing role in articulating the economic relationships between areas, the role of various work crews in constructing Christian buildings, and patronage practices that simple typological or unaided visual inspection of artifacts and decoration can not reveal. These scientific approaches have real limitations ranging from expense and access to the very small number of trained individuals, and the time needed to process samples and data, but they do present new ways of approaching chronology, regional connections, and spaces that sometimes fall to the margins of accessibility and field work.

Scientific approaches to Early Christian material culture complement a growing interest in the larger context for the rise and development of Christianity in the Mediterranean. Interest in climate science, for example, has just started to explore connections between the “Late Antique Little Ice Age” and the rise of Christianity and Islam in the 6th and 8th centuries (e.g. McCormick 2012; Brooke 2014; Izdebski et al. 2015; Haldon 2016; Büntgen et al. 2016 with citations). This work steers clear of simplistic environmental determinism and instead locates the workings of culture within a dense network of human and environmental factors. Recent work in bioarchaeology, and paleo-epidemiology in particular, has refined our understanding of the various Mediterranean wide plagues in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries which appear in the work of Early Christian authors and which shaped the mortuary landscape of Christian communities (Harper 2015, 2016; McCormick 2012, 2015a, 2015b). Like climate change and other environmental factors, the biological and microbial landscape of the ancient world also shaped the development of Christianity and Christian culture (Little 2007; Stark 1996).

These new directions in the study of Christian archaeology have emphasized the embedded nature of Christian practices, objects, and culture within the wider matrix of the Roman and Late Roman Mediterranean. The recognition that objects, the environment, and even microbial entities all contributed to the network of relationships in which Christianity developed. For the most part, archaeologists of Early Christianity have only begun to explore the potential of understanding the development of Christian culture amid the dense web of relations and to recognize the potential of applying theories of agency, materiality, and the critical attention to ontology to sites, buildings, and artifacts associated with Christianity. Glenn Peers’s anarchaeologie, for example, offers one way forward to examining the series of small interventions that created a portable icon (Peers, this volume).. Considering the growing interest in this approach in archaeology more broadly (e.g. Hodder 2012; more citations here), at least one significant route forward for the archaeology of Early Christianity seems clear.

The past and future of Early Christian archaeology rests firmly on its autonomy as a source of knowledge about the Early Christian past. This autonomy, however, has never undermined its deep connection with other approaches and other evidence for the first Christian centuries. It is this tension between its status as an independent source of historical knowledge and its close connections to the study of texts, art, ritual, and theology that has ensured its ongoing relevance to scholars committed to understanding both these transformative centuries and the emergence of Christianity as a world religion. The last few decades has seen the archaeology of Early Christianity tap more fully into currents developed in world archaeology as well as by their colleges in Classical and Mediterranean archaeology. This has opened the field to new methods, new technologies, and new ways of understanding and presenting the Early Christian world. The contributions presented in this volume capture the field amid its ongoing transformation. The major currents, however, of both its past and future remain visible, and we hope that it stands as a meaningful and representative summary of this field as well as an indicator of new directions.

Some Fotos on Friday

Just a few quick photos today instead of anything more substantial.

First, you know the device that you’re using is high tech when it features a MONORAIL on its start-up screen:

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Good luck:

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It’s important for Argie to have Eli and both the bones:

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And it’s important for Milo not to care:

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Have a great weekend!

Call for Papers: Archaeology and Social Justice

I was pretty excited to see the theme of this year’s Joukowsky Institute of Archaeology and the Ancient World workshop: archaeology and social justice. Here’s a link to the call for papers or, if you’re too lazy to click on a link, you can read it below!

It would be very cool to see something at this conference on the archaeology of care or even the recent discussion about the value of punk archaeology as an ethical critique. 

So check out the call for papers below: 

State of the Field 2018: Archaeology and Social Justice

Friday, March 2 – Saturday, March 3, 2018
Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World will host a workshop called State of the Field 2018: Archaeology and Social Justice on March 2-3, 2018. The workshop will be the culmination of two years of discussion on this theme, and is also intended to raise new issues, ask new questions, and encourage ongoing dialogue. Our gathering builds on a tradition of “State of the Field” workshops hosted by the Joukowsky Institute to reflect upon trends in archaeological work, each year focusing our discussion on issues impacting an area of particular interest to our faculty and students. While previous versions have dealt with a country or region of archaeological significance, this year’s event will focus on archaeology’s relationship to ongoing movements for social justice.

Within the context of archaeology, we conceive of social justice as pertaining to issues of privilege and opportunity that affect the makeup of scholars in the field, efforts among archaeologists to engage with the public and with broader social and political discussions, and the degree to which archaeological scholarship and pedagogy intersect with or impact these issues. It also refers to the asymmetries of power and structural inequalities in society at large. This choice of topic has been inspired by recent global social and political concerns, responses from universities and academia that seek to address issues of representation and access, and, most importantly, grassroots movements for social justice.

This workshop thus seeks to engage primarily with the role of archaeology in contemporary social justice movements, while insisting that discussions of diversity in the past can inform experience in the present. We welcome papers that explore the relationship between archaeology and the present political climate, with the intention of addressing the challenges currently facing the field of archaeology and the academy more broadly. We also seek to engage in conversations about the biases and structural problems that make archaeology more accessible to some than to others, in order to help the discipline reach a broader and more inclusive public.

The workshop will include four sessions, each addressing issues of the relationship of archaeology to ongoing struggles for social justice and/or the role of archaeology in those struggles. Rather than predefining the content of these sessions, we intend to shape them with contributions from this call for papers; we wish to offer an open space for discussion of the following, and other, relevant issues:

· The materiality and temporality of current social issues
· Disciplinary decolonization
· Archaeology’s role in discussions of “diversity and inclusion”
· Identity and inequality in the past and present
· Structural and practical access to archaeology and the academy
· Activism and engagement within archaeology
· Archaeology in/of social justice movements
· Archaeology’s relationship to white nationalism
· Archaeology in moments of crisis

To submit a proposal for a paper of approximately 20 minutes, please send an abstract of 350 words or less to by October 1, 2017.

For questions about this CFP, or about the conference, please see our conference website or email

How Do Books Work?

I’ve been thinking a good bit about how books work lately for three reasons.

First, sometime this fall, North Dakota State University Press will publish a small tourist guide to the Bakken that I wrote with Bret Weber. Almost as soon as the manuscript went to NDSU, I began to think about producing a revised edition that expanded and complicated our description of the landscape. Tourist guides are interesting books because they have a tendency both to situated everything in the very narrow present of the visitor and to unfold the diachronic history of a place. As a result, they are both prone to obsolescence as well as interesting contributions to the very landscape they seek to produce. Anyone who has traveled with a 19th century Baedeker’s guide in hand knows the uncanny experience of seeing a historical landscape presented from a point in the past. For a century-old guide, this is endearing, for a guide that is just a year old, it’s annoying. I’d like to update my guide so that it better reflects the present realities in the Bakken while at the same time preserving the 2015 version of the text. 

More than that, I want to expand my discussion of the Bakken to bring it into sync with current conversations on petroculture, petrostates, local history, “prairie environmental history,” and the slow flurry of recent work on the Bakken. The challenge is how do I expand this book without compromising its essential integrity and creating a “frankenbook” that tries to do too many things all at once. 

Adding to this challenge, the book is going to be published as paper only. So any additions to the book will have to not only move between a cohesive text and a range of expanded content, but also between paper and, presumably, non-paper. As a start, I have a website.

My second project is along similar lines and focuses on Corinth Excavation Archaeological Manual. This book as it currently stands is a technical manual, but from the start a group of folks wanted to expand it into something a bit more dynamic, historical, and discursive. Because it’s an open document, anyone could take a swing at marking it up, but we have had this idea that we might invite a group of contributors to comment on the manual from various methodological, historical, and archaeological perspectives. We’d set up the manuscript in and invite contributors.

Here the challenge is not so much how to create a platform for conversation, but how to extract the conversations and repackage it in an archivable and persistent format, and perhaps even as paper.

Finally, and the most challenging project, is a serialized publication of a series of limestone and terra-cotta figurines from an archaeological site on Cyprus. The plan initially was to publish a pilot of a few dozen 3D objects and catalogue entries, but it seems like that we’ll expand that. As a result, we are trying to figure out how to publish a catalogue and analysis as a serial way that preserves but the integrity of presentation. 

This project is in its early stages and has lots of details to work out, but these three projects together are pushing me to rethink how books work to create knowledge both on a granular level (e.g. how do you cross-reference objects in a serialized publication? And how do you control for subtle shifts in interpretation across various iterations of the book and exercise version control?) and on the conceptual level (e.g. books remain a kind of standard for scholarly achievement in many disciplines because they represent the mastery of a particular topic or body of evidence or argument. Do open books that evolve through time explicitly subvert that kind of standard?).

These ideas and issues will continue to percolate in my head over the next few months, so please stay tuned!