Some Recent Works on Archaeological Theory: A Review Essay

If my blogging has been a bit sporadic lately, you can thank the review essay that I’m previewing in this post. It looks at a number of recent works that deal with archaeology of the recent past or archaeological theory. 

The article below runs about 5000 words, but it looks like I’ll need to cut about 2000 more before publication. If you’re interested enough to read the piece, you’ll see that those 2000 words are there for the cutting, but it’ll also make it a bit less of a review and probably a bit more of an essay.

Enjoy and as always, any comments, observations, or brutal assaults with logic or reason are greatly appreciated.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s a fall Friday and homecoming week here in North Dakotaland and the leaves are changing and the air is cool and crisp. We turned on our little gas fireplace yesterday night here at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World headquarters. 

Nothing is better than sitting in a cosy office on a fall Friday and avoiding work by reading some varia and quick hits. (If you get through these quick hits too quickly, be sure to check out the newly released North Dakota Quarterly archive or listen to our Caraheard podcast or check out the latest interview on Prairie Public with the translators of K. J. Skarstein’s War with the Sioux!)

IMG 3848It’s fall, and the flokati beckons with the scent of a thousand goats.

Bacon Mac and Cheese, Entitlement, and the End of the Universe

Anyone who has been on the internet lately has new seen the crazy “bacon-mac-and-cheese college student video.” When I first watched it, I was appalled, confused, delighted, and then sad before being confused again. I thought that it must have been staged, then it couldn’t have been staged. It was simultaneously the worst thing and then the best thing. It might be the end of the universe, but I’m just not sure.

As one might expect, I wanted to drop everything and immediately work on a small edited volume focused on this video. I even invited folks to contribute on the Twitters. No one has taken me up on it which may be a good thing.

At the same time, I felt like I should share my thoughts on why this video is so great and terrible.

1. Entitlement. This is the easy explanation. The 19-year old student, whose name is Luke, felt like he could just walk in there and get mac-and-cheese without even putting down his beer bottle. As an example of student – white, male, student – entitlement or the entitlement of youth, this is worth of outrage. After all, the internet outrage machine is not known for its subtlety and entitlement is low hanging fruit.

2. Carnival. Before I admit to this video being an example of young white, male, college student entitlement (which is almost certainly is in some ways), we should also consider how bizarre it is and ponder the possibility that this even is a kind of ritualized inversion. If this student is entitled, which he probably is, his entitlement did not succeed in getting him his mac-and-cheese. In fact, it seems to have provided a moment of inverted social order where the “lowly” manager at the dining hall who is there to serve the entitled, white, male, youth, refuses to serve the student, and becomes belligerent. The manager hardly remains in his role of service employee (or does he?). The student, on the other hand, has walked into a dining hall with an open beer. This is not only illegal, but remarkably ill-advised (I’m assuming that it violates the university alcohol policies). Now, it’s possible that he’s done this many times in the past and is appalled this time because he can’t get his mac-and-cheese, but the reaction of the crowd and the manager seems to indicate otherwise. The main argument for why he can’t get his mac-and-cheese is that he’s been drinking.

In this context, there is a kind of ritual inversion. The “entitled” student who is in a position where he’s least able to enforce his rights to mac-and-cheese is confronted by the empowered employee who refused to serve a student who is clearly not capable of serving himself. Strange days!

3. The Manager. The manager is the most bizarre figure in the entire video. On the one hand, we can celebrate his unwillingness to bend when confronted with a drunk, belligerent, and hungry student. He has policies and he is literally willing to go the floor to enforce them. He stands up to abuse, keeps his composure, and only resorts to physical violence when he feels threatened. 

At the same time, he is responsible for this scene escalating. First, he refused to give the student mac-and-cheese which, we are led to assume, might immediately de-escalate the situation. Next, he continues to engage the student. Anyone who has regular contact with students knows the “two email rule.” Basically it states that if you’re having an argument with a student (over email), it should be limited to two emails. A third email will only result in escalation and will almost never produce a mutually acceptable resolution to the conflict. (This is a version of the Mark Twain’s quip (who I believe is quoting J-Zed in this instance): “a wise man told me don’t argue with fools because people from a distance can’t tell who is who.”)

Finally, and he clearly recognized that the kid – a 19 year old – was intoxicated and walked into the dining hall with an open bottle of beer. I’ve been around college students to know that if a student walks into a public space with an open bottle of beer, then opportunities for reasoned conversation are likely to be very limited. Why this manager escalated this confrontation to physical violence after he claims to have called the cops is beyond me (actually, it’s not, see below). It is interesting that the manage may have bluffed and says that someone has been called at about the 1 minute mark of the video and tells the student that he has 2 minutes before they arrive. The cops don’t arrive until the very end of the 9 minute video. At the same time, he keeps telling the student that he should just leave. (In effect, run from the cops). There is clearly something more going on here, and I suspect it speaks to the blurry lines between official justice (i.e. the police, the courts, and the laws) and campus justice (i.e. administrative rulings, disciplinary boards, and policies). The first threat that the manager issues was not jail, a fine, or even physical violence, but the threat of expulsion. Campus has its own rules.

4. The Fight. Part of what is going on is that our carnival moment, the moment of ritual inversion where the servers refuse to serve and the entitled do not get what they expect, breaks down the basic set of social rules that dictate this kind of interaction. The Manager did not call the police, so the student – as much as he was functioning in a rational way at all – recognized that he maybe could still get his mac-and-cheese or it was at least possible for him to protect his role in the interaction. 

When that reality became less and less possible, violence erupts and the student ends up being pinned on the floor by a burly cook. The cook issued warning shots, though, yelling twice “Don’t touch my boss.” It would seem that the relationship between the manager and the cook involved a remarkable degree of loyalty. If we consider the situation as having (a fraught and fragile) element of carnival to it, then perhaps we can see a kind of class consciousness here erupting onto the scene. The cook realizes that his boss is in danger, but doesn’t see his boss. Instead he sees the limits of their autonomy as service employees being overrun by this belligerent teen-ager. That might account for why the manager or the cook continued to escalate the scenario while waiting on the police. This was not a fight between the police and the student, or even civil society and the student, this was a fight between those who serve and those who are served. With the fight we see the emergence of class consciousness forged in the crucible of daily interactions with an entitled generation of white, college, man-boys.

5. The Video. The arhythmic poetry (almost a dance) of the entire scene immediately made me assume that this was an elaborate fake. It was something that a professor, someone like my clever buddy Paul Worley, would produce for a class on performance, class consciousness, and colonial engage (or something). (Worley once staged an mock confrontation during a research presentation where students planted in the audience confronted a speaker (who was in on the act) during a presentation to explore (among other things) the potential for shared authority between the audience and the speaker. It was sweet).

The manager, the student, and the cook recognize that they are on video. In fact, at one point Luke looks at the camera and says “This is getting posted somewhere, and you’re gonna look like a fuckin’ tool.”  The manage responds “That’s fine” and both of them ham it up for a second for the camera. For most of the engagement both parties know (as much as the student is capable of “knowing” in his impaired state) that they are being filmed. To be completely fair, the manager and the student had already appealed to the crowd a few seconds before by asking the crowd to support their positions in the argument. Realizing that they’re being recorded, then, reifies their roles as performers in the actual confrontation. Being filmed invariably limits the roles that these two individuals can take. The rest of the video blurs the line between the actual confrontation and the performance of the confrontation even after the exercised cook yells “Show’s over” while pinning the student to the floor. The audience is as much a part of this performance as the cook, the manager, and the student. It is a show.

6. Community. Perhaps the performative aspect of the confrontation is what kept the audience – which appears to consist mainly of students off-camera – from becoming involved. A couple students attempt half-heartedly to convince Luke to leave and try to de-escalate the physical confrontation, but their efforts are as weak as they are ineffective. If the cook’s shout “Don’t touch my boss,” represents the moment class consciousness emerges, then the reluctance of other students to become involved in the confrontation suggests that any unified understanding of “entitlement” is not so clearly formed that it would motivate bystanders to defend a fellow entitled student’s rights. I’m not sure that this video makes clear a pervasive sense of entitlement toward which internet commentators have directed their outrage. Or if there was a sense of entitlement, it was not strong enough to motivate students to act to defend Luke’s rights to mac-and-cheese.

On the other hand, the efforts by the audience to defuse the situation were weak. They watched, the recorded, and they were clearly amused and shocked as things spiraled out of control, but they didn’t surge to the defense of the manager or grab their increasingly vulnerable “bro” and remove him from the situation. This video is hardly an advertisement for “bro” culture. 

7. The Police. Once the student is on the ground and the police intervene, then video gets even more bizarre. The cop asks the student if the hand-cuffs are too tight and then unlocks and adjusts the hand-cuffs. Clearly the cop knows that he’s being filmed (or assumed it, as perhaps he should on any college campus). This concern for the comfort of a belligerent, intoxicated, student is shocking to the viewer. It both reinforces the sense that this student is a teenager and justice for those struggling with adulthood should be gentler (unless, of course, you’re black, then it’s swift and violent). Even if we can argue that most of the video presents, at best, an ambiguous commentary on student entitlement and privilege, the interaction with the cop certainly does. Until Luke spits on the manager, who bizarrely was still standing by as if to ensure that the cop did his job, the cop was firm, but polite. After the spit, the cop pushed the student roughly out the door. 

The video is many more things, of course, and deserves a more thorough, theoretically informed, and detailed consideration. It is also sad. The kid apparently was kicked out of the University of Connecticut because of this (and perhaps other incidents). Apparently this was not the first time that he behaved aggressively while drinking. There is every indication that these confrontations represents bigger problems. 

We don’t know much about this student other than his arrest records and this video, and it’s easy to judge him because many of us have seen similar confrontations fueled by alcohol and youth, and it’s easy to reduce him to a type. I hope that he has a chance to sort himself out. 

North Dakota Man Camp Project White Paper Prospectus

My colleagues Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I started to craft a white paper concerning the recent changes in housing policy and practice in the Bakken this month. We’ve been prompted to put together our research in a more formal after conversations with industry folks and municipal administrators in the Bakken region. 

This is the very first draft of a prospectus for our work. More to come!

Diverse Settlements in a Dynamic Economy
Précis for North Dakota Man Camp Project White Paper

Charlie Hailey in his 2009 study of camps argued that camps were a quintessentially “21st century space.” Indeed, images of refugee camps, work force camps, protest camps, and even recreational camp grounds fill the contemporary media with a kind of consistency that belies their temporary status. Against the backdrop of camps as 21st-century space, this paper presents a summary of over 4 years of research in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota focused on the material and social conditions of workforce housing.

Our work in the Bakken documented over 50 workforce housing sites with interviews, photography, and text through multiple visits over our ongoing four year project. As a result, we can discuss and analyze the relationship between the material conditions in workforce housing and the residents’ attitudes toward their life in Bakken, their relationship with various institutions, businesses, and communities that existed before the boom, and their own efforts to forge communities in temporary settlements like crew camps and RV parks.

Short-term workforce housing represents a response to both long-term and recent trends in development of the American West and the global economy. Camps provided temporary shelter for miners, construction crews, and soldiers in the sparsely populated landscape of the 19th century American West. By the late-20th and early 21st century, workforce housing had become a multi-billion dollar a year industry with global logistics companies provided housing to a similar group of people on a global scale. Fueled by the frantic pace of the global economy and the nearly-boundless flow of capital, just-in-time manufacturing, extractive industries, and construction projects have come to rely upon a substantial mobile workforce who lives and works at a significant distance from their homes. In the Bakken, the workforce needs of the oil industry vary with drilling and fracking requiring more labor than production. Likewise, preparing pipelines for waste water and oil both involves significant labor at the time and reduces the need for truck drivers throughout the life of the well.

The existence of a workforce as mobile as the flow of capital and the needs of various industries has put new pressures on the more stable settlements which have come to host the rapid increase (and sometimes rapid decrease) of these fast moving investments in local resources. Traditionally, communities expanded housing stock, infrastructure, and investment to accommodate a growing workforce with some expectation that the economic benefits and new populations were likely to persist for long enough to produce a return on local investments. In the 21st century, a highly mobile workforce, supported by global infrastructure companies, changing notions of home, and the highly integrated character of modern markets, has changed the landscape in which community investment takes place. Conversations with hundreds of workers in the Bakken across a wide range of housing demonstrate that these changes in the economy shape the attitudes of workers who have come to the region. Many of these workers regard their time in North Dakota as temporary, have homes, family, and strong social ties outside the region, and as the economy slowed, began to formulate alternate strategies that took advantage of their mobility.

The voluntary mobility of the Bakken workforce requires new approaches for ensuring that short-term economic development associated with an oil boom becomes sustained economic growth. It is important to distinguish between the various kinds of work force housing in the Bakken and the populations that these workforce housing options serve. Large crew camps provided by global logistics companies or major employers in the oil industry cater to a workforce with high expectations of mobility and highly-specialized skills tied directly to extractive industries. RV parks, which also represent another form of short-term housing catering to another highly mobile population, but often with weaker ties to the oil industry and more generic skill sets ranging from pipeline work, commercial drivers licenses, to service industry commitments. This group is less directly dependent on oil industry work, more likely to include family members, including children, and perhaps more likely to remain in the community after the boom related industry departs. They, however, are also most likely to require new training or to compete with already existing workforce for jobs in the post-doom community.

The fundamental challenge facing North Dakota communities during the most recent Bakken oil boom is how to provide suitable housing for rapidly changing workforce needs. The initial period of the boom witnessed workers camped in public parks, back yards, and the infamous Walmart parking lot. In response, the municipalities William and McKenzie Counties issued temporary conditional use permits (or special use permits) for crew camps and RV parks. This served to ease the initial shock of the boom by providing housing designed specifically to accommodate the short-term needs of the extractive work and the mobile character of the workforce associated with this industry. Housing in these camps ranged from the functional and comfortable in well-appointed crew camps to the ad hoc and informal in the many RV parks across the region. As oil prices declined, the short-term population housed in crew camps also declined as there was less need for specialized oil patch workers during the labor-intensive process of drilling and fracking new wells. At the same time, residents in the patch who had formerly lived in RV parks found it easier to move into more permanent housing made available and more affordable by the increasing in housing and apartment inventories. The key to understanding the trends in housing in the Bakken is to understand that different populations have different housing needs and resources in the dynamic economic and social world of the Bakken

Adventure in Podcasting: Season 2, Episode: 2: Domestic Space and a Very Special Guest

In the second episode of Season 2, Bill and Richard violate the spirit of Labor Day and get to work on recording a podcast.  It’s okay, because our special guest is Bev, Bill’s mother-in-law.  Since she’s from Australia, we can celebrate Labor Day in late winter, like they do in the southern hemisphere.  Our topic of discussion: the different houses we have lived in and how they shaped our daily lives in North America, Australia, and Greece.

Be sure to check out our sponsor this episode. Karl Jacob Skarstein’s The War with the Sioux from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

The podcast begins with a discussion of Queensland, Australia, and in particular the Queenslander, a house, traditionally built of timber, suitable for the hot climate of Australia.  We drift into a discussion of the American Ranch style house, with an oblique nod to the Four-square.  Perhaps you should buy a Field Guide to American Houses.  You can find a typology on the web, of course.

Don’t forget to learn about the Hills Hoist.  And the awesome variety of Australian Pubs.

We referenced Greek Houses and Kostis Kourelis

Australian Place we reference:  Queensland, Townsville, someplace called Beero.  Townsville is also home to these superheroes.

It’s not Caraheard without a reference to mancamps in the Bakken, or their abandonment as the oil boom turns down.

Toilet water does not drain counterclockwise in Australia.  Quit asking.

An Open Access Archive for North Dakota Quarterly

I’m very happy to announce that we’ve worked with the HathiTrust to release the first 74 volumes of North Dakota Quarterly to the Open Access University under a CC-BY-ND license. The ND for all you open access crusaders who saw that and immediately started to sharpen blades is an unfortunate necessity because for much of NDQ’s history we published without contracts or with very restricted contracts that only allowed works to appear in a particular volume of NDQ. We know that it’s not idea, but it is better than nothing or a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

You can get access to The Archive, here.

I also made this little graphic to celebrate the dropping of The Archive.

NDQ GraphicFixedABSM

Here’s the press release that’ll go out today:

On Homecoming weekend, alumni, students, faculty, and administrators take time to celebrate the past and future of the University of North Dakota. North Dakota Quarterly is joining this celebration by releasing over 100 years of back issues to the public for free. The Quarterly is among the oldest academic traditions at the University, and the release of digitalized back issues is part of a renaissance at the journal centered on an active editorial board, a vibrant new design, and a dynamic web presence. By releasing these back issues, the Quarterly makes a world of content that could only be read at libraries available to anyone with an internet connection.

Kate Sweney, the managing editor of NDQ, remarks: “It gives me a great deal of pleasure to finally see the many wonderful volumes of North Dakota Quarterly made available digitally and more easily accessible by a wider audience. I have so many favorite articles, poems, and stories in these issues and its tremendously exciting to open up the Quarterly‘s past to a wider audience.”

Sharon Carson, editor of the Quarterly, responded: “We are proud to be part of public humanities at UND, in North Dakota, and in spaces beyond. We are delighted to make an archive of such remarkable writing from NDQ’s past available to new audiences, and at no cost.”

The Quarterly has long stood as a proving ground for writers across the country and world as well as across campus. The diversity of the Quarterly has long set it apart from the crowded field of literary journals. Sepia toned prairie reveries shared pages with scientific writing, political commentary, history, literature, and poetry.

Bill Caraher, who managed the release of NDQ‘s digital archive, noted: “It is important to stress that NDQ is not a stodgy old academic journal. The back issues reveal the tremendous vitality of the publication as a place for thoughtful comment on the history of the state, the university, and the world. This represents an important resource for teachers, for faculty across the country, and for mindful readers everywhere.”

The Quarterly explores topics as wide as the prairie horizon with thousands of contributions touching on issue as diverse as how best to care for state’s natural resources, the political and social culture of the region, American Indian history and literature, the history of the university, its faculty, and administrators, and the various ways that the world intersects with life in North Dakota.

The back volumes of the Quarterly were digitized as part of the larger Google Book project and are made available through an agreement between the University and the HathiTrust which maintains parts of the Google Books archive. The back issues can be accessed on the website and can be downloaded and shared under open access license.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Fall has sprung this week in North Dakotaland with cool nights and mild days. It’s a lovely time to sell a car, struggle through a late summer cold, hurt one’s back, or even contemplate the enormity of the universe. It was also a good week for writing and preparing a list quick hits and varia.

Oh, it’s been quite a week for my good friend Dimitri Nakassis who finally became a MacArthur Fellow. Dimitri is one of the really good people in archaeology, and I this prestigious award could not have gone to a better person. Congratulations!  

MilosWorldIt’s Milo’s world, and we are just allowed to play in it.

Writing Week: Final Bits of Chapter 1

Writing was brutal this morning, but I think I’ve correctly assessed the edge of my understanding (but like a good archaeologist, I’m sure that I’ve over-dug into less helpful levels). 

The best stuff today comes at the end of the second paragraph. 

For those of you who don’t know what is going on, go and read this blog post. My typical blog is on hiatus this week as I work to catch up on some writing.

Archaeology and Media (cont.)

If the excavated games are fragments of both the experience of playing the game and represent the digital game itself, our own work as archaeologists likewise operated at the intersection of representation and practice. There is no doubt that our presence at the dig and the remarkable access that we were allowed reflected our status as props in the documentary (for archaeology and the media see Holtorf 2007; Clack and Brittain 2007). In many ways, Joe Lewandowski did more of the archaeological heavy-lifting through his creative efforts to identify the general site of the Atari dump and his appropriate use of bucket augur to locate the deposit of games itself. The Alamogordo Atari Expedition team, in contrast, largely worked around the documentary film crews and general media frenzy to document the excavation of the landfill and the context of the games themselves. Our formal place within the film, particular Andrew Reinhard who embraced his role as the public face of the archaeology team and its director, represented our role as archaeologists, which at times had to skirt the frantic work of the documentary filmmakers to coordinate both the filming and the public spectacle that surrounded the excavation of the games. The peripheral status of any real archaeological work hindered the consistent flow of information from the filmmakers to our team and frequently left us guessing about whether we were witnessing actual excavations or staged challenges, strategies, and discoveries meant to heighten the sense of triumph when the games where ultimately discovered. At the same time, we did what we could to play our role and to deploy our credentials as “real archaeologists” to legitimize the recovery of the games and to leverage our status as props to attempt legitimate archaeological documentation.

The vibrant intersection of media and archaeology framed the entire Alamogordo Atari Excavation and documentary project. The urban legends surrounding the deposition of the Atari cartridges in the New Mexico desert initially gained a foothold on the internet in forums populated with fans of Atari games. The story’s popularity certainly benefited from the location of the Atari dump in a “remote” New Mexico town mere miles from the White Sands Missile range where some of the first atomic weapons were tested. Moreover, the New Mexico desert is part of a sparse, Western landscape populated with strange and secret places ranging Area 51 to Roswell. It is only a slight exaggeration to understand the New Mexico desert as the place where the Frederick Jackson Turner’s Western Frontier intersects with “the final frontier.” A landscape filled with alien encounters, top secret projects, and technological experiments presented a perfect setting for a narrative featuring a technology company, a remote dumping ground, and a game based on a movie featuring a lovable and hapless E.T. While many of the key narratives shaping this fantastic Western landscape existed in traditional print media and films decades before the emergence of the internet, communities interested in the various narratives converging in this landscape coalesced on the world wide web and developed more intricate and detailed arguments. As we will argue elsewhere in this book, the presence of archaeologists at the dig represented an effort by the filmmakers to appeal to standards of truth present in forums where conspiracy theories, myth-busting, and suppressed evidence tend to provide significant fodder for debate. Ironically, parts of the excavation process at the Alamogordo landfill appeared to drew upon practices spoofed by the director, Zak Penn, in an earlier mockumentary, The Incident at Loch Ness. In this film, Penn casts himself as a bumbling producer who seeks to add drama to an otherwise earnest documentary film directed by Werner Herzog by staging the appearance of the Loch Ness Monster during the film. This fictional film about a film played upon Herzog’s reputation for an earnest lack of irony even in the face of relentless absurdity (Cronin 2014). Our appeals to archaeological standards and efforts to document the excavation and recovery of the Atari games formed a similarly earnest foil against the frantic bustle of stage-managed days at the Alamogordo landfill. It was never clear where the film ended the dirty work of production began. In other words, the presence of archaeologists at this project was both the product of our role of archaeology in documentary film, as well as the discourse and media in which conversations about the Atari dump took place.


Archaeology of the contemporary world brings to the fore the challenges of archaeology in the contemporary world. As such, archaeology and archaeologists form part of a dynamic assemblage of objects, ideas, practices, and media that shape our everyday and academic life. The excavation of contemporary trash carries on the tradition of archaeological work that recognizes both discard practices and discarded objects as important parts of human life. Archaeological mediation represents just one method by which discarded things acquire new value and enter into new relations and forms of circulation. By locating these objects in larger assemblages of practices, individuals, and objects, archaeologists are able to trace the impact of things on how we engage the world.

The use of archaeological methods to document the contemporary world is not without complications derived from the interplay between modern objects and disciplinary, material, and institutional limits. As we noted, the potential toxicity of the Alamogordo dump prompted the New Mexico Environmental Department to limit the amount of time the trench was open. The instability of the landfill itself, which is the product of both the objects in the fill and dumping practices common at older and smaller landfills around the US, made entering the trench impossible. These limitations, in turn, challenged traditional archaeological practice and required us to document the excavations in unorthodox ways as will be more clear in subsequent chapters. Finally, the sheer abundance of objects in a landfill made exhaustive recording impossible and even statistically meaningful sampling a challenge. Archaeology of the contemporary world cannot escape or ignore our profoundly entangled relationship with materials and objects.

The web of relations that made our archaeological work possible is not limited to institutions and objects that intersected on a windy day at the Alamogordo landfill. In fact, objects at the center of the excavation drew their significance from a expansive network of media encounters ranging from the experience of playing the E.T. video game to the film that inspired the game, the internet forums that incubated a provocative landscape of the American West, and the documentary filmmakers themselves who sought to control the narrative of discovery and the process of work at the site. Penn’s previous work ensured that any conscious efforts on our part to document the excavation according to disciplinary standards ran the risk of making us the same straight-man dupes as played by Herzog in the Incident of Loch Ness. Beyond the immediate opportunity provided by the documentary film crew, the Alamogordo excavation relied upon the convergence of new and old media far more than any dispassionate scholarly discourse (Jenkins 2008). The web of relations that made the Atari games significant includes the physical character of the games themselves, the experience of playing the games, the highly critical reception of the E.T. game when it was released, the commitment of an online Atari fan base as well as views of the desert West as the realm of conspiracies, aliens, and fantastic encounters at the margins of the American society. In the case of the Alamogordo Atari Expedition, our work was deeply entangled in media which were simultaneously the object of our archaeological documentation and a crucial element of the assemblage in which our work took place.

Writing Week: More Chapter 1

For those of you who don’t know what this is, go and read this blog post. My typical blog is on hiatus this week as I work to catch up on some writing.

Enjoy the fragments and fruits of my labor all week, fresh from the tips of my fingers, and thanks to everyone who has kept returning to my blog despite its recent myopic focus!

Archaeology of the Contemporary World and the Recent Past (continued)

Using archaeology to document and analyze the modern world has required archaeologists to adapt their practices and methods. Issues of toxicity, complexity, and sheer abundance have pushed archaeologists to work more quickly, at a distance, and at a smaller scale. At the Atari excavation in Alamogordo, there was a strictly maintained safety cordon around the trench owing both to the instability of scarps cut through the loosely-packed landfill and the operation of the massive excavator. Moreover, the trench could only be open for a limited amount of time owing to concerns about the release of toxic chemicals associated with household waste in the landfill and the real fear of the wind blowing exposed trash into the nearby town. Finally, the excavated landfill material had to be quickly moved to another landfill and dumped again offering almost no opportunity to the careful scrutiny of upper strata of the landfill. Entering the trench for the careful documentation of the levels present and any material visible in the scarp was obviously out of the question. Backfilling of the trench began the day after excavations were complete as per New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) guidelines. As a result of these limitation, we had to document the progress of the excavation from a safe distance that fortunately provided a satisfactory view of progress which we then confirmed by occasional visits to the side of the trench. Only once levels near the Atari deposit were reached did we have access to the material being removed from the trench, and we have very limited time to document this assemblage.

The archaeology of the modern world offers new opportunities and challenges the discipline. On the one hand, archaeological methods offers a new perspective on how we interact with the complex assemblage of objects that constitutes modern life. An emphasis on the relationship between objects and object and individuals has demonstrated that the human interaction with objects constitutes a key facet in how we understand our world. On the other hand, modern objects offer particular challenges for archaeologists and have pushed us to move beyond both the conventional method and metaphor of excavation as well as practices originally developed to manage the scarcity of material culture from past. Archaeologists of the contemporary world now must deal with a sometimes seething mass of toxic artifacts, present in hyper abundant quantities, and often set in complex networks of relationships with other objects, living people, and newly-developed and ephemeral media forms.

Archaeology and the Media

The Alamogordo Atari Expedition was media project. Our access to the site was made possible because we were playing a role in a documentary about the search for the famous dump of Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill. The reason this kind of venture received funding likewise had to do with the circulation of various urban legends and conspiracy theories across the internet. This same connected web of computers was also positioned to disseminate the documentary via Microsoft’s X-Box 1 gaming and media platform. At the same time, we digging in the Alamogordo desert in search of objects best known not for their physical form, but for what that form contained. The recognition that archaeology and the media have deep interconnection has garnered recent attention from scholars who have explored the relationship between various media, from photography and drawing, to television and documentaries, and the objects of archaeological investigation. There are also scholars, often from the fields cultural studies, who have offered a broadly construed “archaeological” critique of media that ranges from the careful examination of now outmoded or obsolete media to the considerations for how technology has shaped the production and consumption of media over time. While practitioners of “media archaeology” have been quick to distinguish what they do from disciplinary archaeological practice, the shared in the relationships between objects and concepts like the assemblage has led to a growing convergence in methods and arguments (Piccini 2015).

Raiford Guins’ Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) typifies the growing convergence between media archaeology and disciplinary archaeological practice. Guins’ followed the tracks of video games from objects of desire to obsolete, and typically disposable, commodities and then back to being collectable items that often confound the efforts of conservators to keep them operational. He emphasized the materiality of cabinet arcade games contributed significantly to the experience of game play and argued that even the more modest and mass-produced console video games for home use sought to blend the aesthetic of cabinet gaming with the character of domestic space. The elaborate labels evoking the art on cabinet games and contrasted with the faux woodgrain present on the classic Atari 2600 console designed to fit into the cosy paneled family room with wood-paneled television.

For Guins, who was present at the Atari excavation, the excavating of the game cartridges was more than just the exhuming of obsolete media on which a video game was inscribed, but the recovery of part of the domestic gaming experience for those present. While the game cartridges recovered from the landfill were, in some ways, the equivalent of ancient transport vessels which derive significance largely because they reflect the trade in wine, olive oil, fish sauce, or some other typically liquid commodity, they were also inseparable from process of domesticating the arcade experience and the fabric of the late 20th century family room. The games were both the material trace the digital game, but also part of the larger experience. This interpretation was seemingly sustained by the willingness of hundreds of people to pay money for games that, as far as we know, do not work.

If the excavated games are fragments of both the experience of playing the game and represent the digital game itself, our own work as archaeologists likewise operated at the intersection of representation and practice. There is no doubt that our presence at the dig and the remarkable access that we were allowed reflected our status as props in the documentary (for archaeology and the media see Holtorf 2007; Clack and Brittain 2007). In many ways, Joe Lewandowski did more of the archaeological heavy-lifting through his creative efforts to identify the general site of the Atari dump and his appropriate use of bucket augur to locate the deposit of games itself. The Alamogordo Atari Expedition team, in contrast, largely worked around the documentary film crews and general media frenzy to document the excavation of the landfill and the context of the games themselves. Our formal place within the film, particular Andrew Reinhard who embraced his role as the public face of the archaeology team and its director, represented our role as archaeologists, which at times had to skirt the frantic work of the documentary filmmakers to coordinate both the filming and the public spectacle that surrounded the excavation of the games. Our credentials as archaeologists legitimized the recovery of the games and gave us the access necessary to attempt archaeological documentation.

Writing Week: Chapter 1 continued

I’m taking a week off from blogging and dedicated my morning time to working on a book project. Here’s a more substantial explanation of what’s going on with my blog here, and here’s part 1 of my writing week labors.

Archaeology and Trash (continued)

More recent work on our interaction with trash continues to make visible the complex way in which we engage with discard as a practice and discarded objects as thing. Scholars like Joshua Reno and Jeff Ferrell have explored the social dimension of discarded objects. Reno’s work (2009) explores scavenging practices among landfill workers at a landfill in Michigan and situates discarded objects as part of a larger discourse of value. In other words, the value of an object from a landfill is embedded in the social, economic, and even political of both the individual and the community. For Jeff Ferrell (2006), spending time as a scavenger on the streets of a Texas City reinforced the idea that discarded objects can easily regain value in the proper social and economic circumstances. He filled both his house, his shed, and his wallet (in some cases) with the rewards of cruising the streets in affluent suburbs looking through piles of discarded objects set out for trash removal. Like Reno, Ferrell recognized that the value of discarded goods is far from absolute and much more aligned with the way individuals and groups see these objects. For both scholars, discard and reuse practices rely upon complex networks of relationships defined by not only the objects themselves, but also social practices, economic status, and various political commitments.

Archaeologists have long regarded trash as a source for treasured information in the past, and have become increasingly aware of the various relationships that make archaeological objects valuable. The presence of archaeologists at the Alamogordo landfill contributed in some small way to the value of the Atari games located in this excavation’s lowest levels. Most of the value of these games, however, derived from the longstanding urban legend associated with their deposition and the interest of documentary filmmakers in their recovery and the story. The iconic status of Atari among “Generation X”res and a growing nostalgia for their childhood likewise added value to trash from the bottom of an Alamogordo landfill. The recovery and celebration of these broken, dirty, and discarded games granted everyday life in the 1980s a legitimizing, archaeological patina. Not only were these objects important to individual memory from the 1980s, but they also had larger cultural value. The disbursement of some of the recovered games to museums around the world further validated a generation’s nostalgia as more than simply personal memories, but landmark moments in the history of American culture.

Archaeology of the Contemporary World and the Recent Past

The discarded Atari games gained value from the intersection of the old and new media, archaeological interest, and generational memory and nostalgia. Archaeologists have become increasingly interested in the way that artifacts produce meaning both in the past, but also in our world today. From this interest has emerged the “archaeology of the contemporary world” which focuses on the place of objects in contemporary society. Like our reflection of the value of trash, archaeologists of the contemporary world tend to view objects as existing within dense networks of relationships which include other objects, individuals, and larger social relationships, political commitments, economic forces, and even academic, interpretative paradigms. In other words, objects exist and have meaning only as part of a larger network of relationships.

The greatest challenge facing archaeologists, however, is not finding ways to appreciate the significance of objects in the contemporary world. After all, the fields ranging from material culture studies, to history, architecture, anthropology, and design have all explored how we use objects and buildings to produce meaning in the world. Archaeologists, for their part, have worked to consider how to approach the study of contemporary objects with methods grounded in rigorous archaeological practices. When objects are recovered from subsurface contexts, archaeologists can fall back on archaeological practices and methods to document the significance of modern objects, unfortunately, however, most modern objects do not derive from excavated contexts and do not lend themselves to longstanding and common archaeological approaches. In most cases, archaeology of the modern world does not involve documenting layers of historical deposition to produce a stratified understanding of the past.

In the place of excavation and stratigraphy, archaeologists have come to deploy another common archaeological term for their interrogation of the modern world: assemblage (Harrison 2011). For archaeology, an assemblage represents a body of objects associated with a single archaeological context. In excavation, assemblages are typically defined by chronology or a depositional event. In other words, objects dating to a particular period constitute an assemblage from a site, or objects found in the same deposit represent a bounded assemblage. In other forms of archaeology, such as surface survey, assemblages can represent all the objects found on the surface over a set area and the relationship between these objects constitutes a history of a region. In the modern world, a focus on the assemblage allows archaeologists to emphasize the relationships between these objects and individuals that interact to produce meaning. Exploring these relationships includes an expanded awareness of the role of the archaeologist in the produces of analysis and description.

Archaeology of the contemporary world and historical archaeologist focusing on recent times has also worked to emphasize methodological and procedural issues associated with the documentation of recent objects. For example, the excavation of damaged vinyl long-playing records from the commune famously associated with the Grateful Dead at Olompali encountered toxicity associated with the fire that destroyed the site (Parkman 2014). This not only limited access to the actual deposits associated with the finds, but efforts to decontaminate the records damaged the objects. David Yoder commented on the hyper abundance of modern objects that can be formally considered archaeological under federal archaeological policies has become a challenging obstacle for archaeologists who often developed their collection and documentation methods in the context of less materially abundant periods and groups (Yoder 2014). The abundance of modern material has had an obvious impact on archaeologists involved in managing and maintaining cultural heritage from the modern world (see Olsen and Pétursdóttir 2013) as they work with communities struggling to adjust their aesthetic values and historical narrative to accommodate objects associated with the recent past. Sites like the Berkeley Pitt in Butte, Montana, which is a dramatic, toxic, and colorful superfund site created from an abandoned open pit mine, push communities to reflect on how their historic and archaeological landscapes fit into their future (LeCain 2009). Despite these challenges, archaeologists have come to appreciate the ability of from the recent past to present insights into production, consumption, and discard practices, the changing pace of life in the 20th and 21st century, and the development of technology. Paul Graves-Brown documented a desk drawer full of audio connectors that highlight how much simple tools have changed in the last three decades (Graves-Brown 2014); Colleen Morgan and Sara Perry excavated an abandoned hard drive (Morgan and Perry 2015).