Two Short Things on Writing

I’ve been thinking a bit about writing (and reading) lately. 

On my flight out to Atlanta this past week I read Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard 2012). I’ll likely assign it to my graduate methods class next year. It’s a nice summary of how different disciplines write and offers some substantial tips on how to make academic writing more accessible to a wider audience without losing its intricacy, depth, or distinct tone and voice. Most readers will have heard her recommendations before: vary your writing, avoid substantive nouns, use jargon sparingly, reconsider disciplinary orthodoxies (e.g. using the first person), engage the reader early in the piece, and avoid noun-style, adverbs, and passive voice. 

While anyone who takes writing seriously should check out Sword’s book, she does little to unpack why academic writing has developed such an idiosyncratic style. On the one hand, I think it is safe to assume that academic style begets academic style. In other words, academics write as they do because we spend a good bit of our formative years reading academic writing. If reading good writing helps writers write better, then reading academic writing almost certainly encourages academics to write in a particular style. The problem, then, is as much with how academics read as with how academics write. Making tweaks to our style is one approach to refining academic language, but to make a real change to how academics write we have to change how (and what) academics read.

I was bummed out to read Andrew Henry’s guest blog post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. According to his post, a panel on blogging at the Society for Biblical Literature/American Association of Religion conference discouraged graduate students from blogging. Henry doesn’t provide much detail (but James McGrath does), but apparently the panelists considered the risks associated with graduate students blogging outweighs potential benefits (I suppose to the student and to the field). The Twitters came alive with comments on how blogging helped folks get their tenure track jobs and expand the audience for the various disciplines represented at the SBL/AAR.

One thing that struck me about their conversation is how much more active the SBL/AAR blogging community is. My blog has been running for over 5 years and I rarely get more than a couple comments per post. I have received some charitable mentions in scholarship and across social media, but my general impression is that my blog has a limited (if loyal) audience which is not inclined to troll, debate, or even comment on my musings. From what I gather about the SBL/AAR blogging culture, there is genuine and active debate across these public platforms and a graduate student’s participation in these debates has real risks and benefits for their career. Scholars associated with the SBL/AAR must read in a different way from those in more conventional silos associated with ancient history, Classics, and Mediterranean archaeology. These different reading practices must shape how and when and where scholars write.  

Proposals for New Grant Programs

I spent part of yesterday morning contributing to an email discussion of digital humanities and virtual reality with the good folks at the North Dakota Humanities Council. This was both fun and productive. One result of these conversations is that I was encouraged to propose some new grant initiatives to the NDHC. These are just proposals, but I wanted to think out loud here on the bloggie-blog to gets some feedback from as wide an audience as possible. As with any grants, the outcomes are only as good as the program will allow. Poorly articulated grant programs produce poor projects.

The first of two new programs that I’d propose would be called Digital North Dakota Grants. These grants have three goals:

1. Extending the Reach: The state of North Dakota has long suffered a diaspora of sorts as people with strong North Dakota ties have moved elsewhere for a better climate, more opportunities, and a different life. These individuals often retain a strong sense of connection to the state and its communities. The energy and remittances from this diaspora community has had an impact on life here in the state. The Digital North Dakota Grants would be a way to engage the North Dakota diaspora in the vibrant, local humanities scene.

More importantly, perhaps for the NDHC is that these folks have resources, and as the NDHC has turned its attention toward development to ensure that our programs can weather upheavals in federal funding, we need to expand the impact and reach of the NDHC to the diaspora who have typically remained active in state initiatives.

The population of the state has historically trended older, but recent trends have shown that the state is, in fact, getting younger and the media age of ND residents is now below the national average. Our younger constituency typically lacks the financial resources of the North Dakota diaspora, but should nevertheless be a target audience for humanities programing. Digital North Dakota grants would help bring a generation of citizens more familiar with digitally mediated discussions into the conversation.

2. Celebrating the Local. The National Endowment for the Humanities initiated its Office of Digital Humanities in 2011. This office has funded a wide range of grants that they recognized as having national and international impacts. They have been somewhat less interested in digital projects that have local impacts or reflect the more focused priorities of local communities. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Red River flood or the 50th anniversary of the publication of Elwyn Robinson’s influential History of North Dakota, we encounter local events that speak directly to history of the region, the state, and our communities. Funding to support digitally mediated projects that engage these events (as examples) is unlikely to come from a federal sources (and even if it does, the NDHC brand should be associated with work to preserve, celebrate, and reflect on these memorable events).

3. Preserving the Conversation. The NDHC is remarkable in its ability to stimulate conversations. All too often, however, these conversations, discussion, and engagement are ephemeral. Digitally mediated conversations offer a way not only to expand the conversation but also to preserve it allowing future generations of North Dakotans to reflect on how certain events or encounters transformed their ways of thinking or even their communities. For example, the recent tumult over the new University of North Dakota nickname provides a fascinating perspective into the relationship between UND stakeholders and Native communities, ideas of North Dakota identity, and the politics of race in the state. Creating a digital application where members of the community can contribute their reactions to this process, while it remains energized by emotions, polemic, and conversation, presents an exciting way to document and capture the local history of the state at a particular moment in time.

With these goals in mind, my proposed grant would encourage applications that (1) extend the reach of traditional humanities programming, (2) focus on local concerns, issues, collections, and conversations, and (3) feature robust data management plans to ensure that both the program and conversations are preserved. Successful proposals must stimulate discussion, focus on local groups or communities, and encourage and preserve dynamic and thought provoking engagement with the humanities. Purely archival or access based initiatives will not be funded unless they foreground dynamic opportunities for reflective and reflexive engagement with collections. Whenever possible proposals should involve open source software and encourage free, open access materials.

In my formal proposal, I’ll include case studies funded by other state humanities councils like Washington’s, DC Digital Museum or Vermont’s wonderfully simple, Civil War Book of Days serial email.

The second proposed new grant program would focus on the North Dakota Humanities Council’s already successful GameChanger Series. One of the most exciting things about this series is how effectively it stimulates discussion and brings together a diverse and dynamic group of speakers and from the community to engage with the most pressing issues of the day. The first GameChanger focused on conflict and culture in the Middle East, the second focused on the challenges and opportunities of the digital world, and next year’s series will celebrate 100 years of the Pulitzer Prize.

The disappointing thing about these events is that the energy of the conversation tends to dissipate rather quickly as the attention of the small NDHC staff ramps up for the next year’s event. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the game has, in fact, changed (or just the playahs). The KeepChanging Grant Program would support programs and projects that continue the momentum and themes of the GameChanger series in the three years following the event. Each year at least three grants would be available with at least one grant set designated to support a project related to each of the previous three years of the GameChanger. (Wow, that’s hard to articulate in a clear way!).

The goal of the KeepChanging program is to extend the impact of the GameChanger series without taxing the small NDHC staff. It will also provide us with an informal measure of the impact of the GameChanger in on the humanities in the state. Presumably more engaging events will spur ongoing interest.

As per usual on the blog, I’m interested in any and all feedback on these ideas. They are, as I said, just proposals; just my thoughts, man – right or wrong.

Atlanta and ASOR 2015

I had a great week attending the 2015 American Schools of Oriental Research conference in Atlanta. The panels that I managed to attend were interesting and crowded, the committees to which I was obliged were productive, and impromptu meetings with friends, colleagues, and strangers were fun and useful.

I even learned some things. So in the interest in bringing order to a complicated few days, here’s a little list summarizing my encounter with the 2015 ASOR meeting: 

1. Bathrooms. I don’t, generally, spend much time reflecting on bathroom design, but at a conference fueled by coffee and endless pitchers of water in every room, regular visits to the bathroom punctuated my day at steady intervals. The men’s room that I visited most regularly had a small vestibule (around 3 m in length) between the door to the hallway and the door to the bathroom proper. Through this second door was a doglegged passage of 7-8 m in length featuring a bank of four or five sinks. The standard bathroom fixtures were set further into the bathroom around a partition wall.

This arrangement may sound typical, but it means that a visitor to the facilities moves through about 10 m of passage between entering the space from the external hallway and encountering the most important features of the bathroom. This space was genuinely liminal for the visitor and preyed directly upon our common, human anxieties associated with moving from the public space of the hallway to the gender-defined space of the bathroom. Is this really the men’s room? Am I in the wrong place? 10 meters is a significant distance to travel “betwixt and between,” and made every trip to the facilities involve some design-induced angst.

2. Nice Cars and Traffic. This was my first time in Atlanta outside of an unplanned night in an airport hotel after some botched travel arrangements a few years back. A few friends with Georgia roots tried to explain to me the urban landscape of the city which seemed to me to be an East Coast version of West Coast urban sprawl and truly a fitting anchor for Gibson’s Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis

The one thing that Atlanta is famous for is traffic (and streets named Peachtree). I was enchanted (see below) by the bustling traffic of Atlanta’s byways and trip to from Buckhead to the Cabbagetown neighborhood for dinner took us on vibrant and traffic-filled highways through Downtown and Midtown.

IMG 4085

The spectacular array of exotic and imported cars on the roads of Buckhead and on Atlanta’s highways reminded me that I truly live in “Pontiac and Plymouth Country (TM)” and created a moving montage of social and economic display. While eating lunch at a little burger place, I watched no fewer than three Bentleys roll by and was shocked to realize that Mercedes only sells S-Class cars to Atlanta residents.

3. ASOR and CAARI and The Digital. There were sustained and productive conversations about “The Digital” both on the ASOR committee on publications and at the board of trustees meeting of CAARI (the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute). The former is embracing the need to at least experiment with open-access digital publishing and linked data and the latter is starting to think more critically about its web site as more than just a billboard for the institutes existence. I’m increasingly optimistic that Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town will appear next year as a digital, fully linked, revised edition and Pyla-Koutsopetria II: Excavations at an Ancient Coastal Town will be born as a linked digital book in 2017. 

As for CAARI, there’s much work to do, but we’ve made some progress. Moving the CAARI site from a hand-coded page to a WordPress template would make updating the site easier and facilitate links with social media. The conversations at the trustees meeting also suggested that people are increasingly interested in using the website for… something. It may be that the website emerges as a place to solicit contributions or to market scholarship opportunities or even to publish old photographs of Cyprus. It’s clear that the board is not quite sure how to align the web with CAARI’s broader mission.

As I sat there listening to the conversation (and the many generational protests), I started to think that CAARI could use the web to disseminate scholarship perhaps in conjunction with the re-opening of the expanded library. A digital occasional paper series modeled on the ISAW Papers series might anchor the CAARI web presence in a familiar medium – scholarly publication, celebrate the benefit of the new library by linking CAARI with academic production, and provide a new outlet for publications on Cyprus now that the Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus is on sabbatical.

The key thing, to my mind, is to revamp the website with a strategy (and goals) in mind. We have work to do!

4. Slow Archaeology. I was thrilled to hear the term “slow archaeology” appear in several papers at ASOR and even more thrilled to realize that some of these mentions were not directed at my work but indicative of parallel work with the same ideas. Eric Kansa’s work on “slow data” distinguishes the deliberate and careful work of publishing, linking, and using published archaeological data from the compliance based “data dump” and suggests that a “slow” approach to data publishing will both yield far more important results and require a change in attitudes among archaeologists, institutions, and funding agencies.

Independent of my work, Ömür Harmansah has explored the intersection of archaeology and development, neoliberalism, and the modern academy to suggest that, today, almost all archaeology is salvage archaeology pushed by an array of pressures inherent to late capitalism. As an antidote to this trend, he has proposed approaches that embrace an intentional engagement with complex landscapes including a kind of “slow survey” that attempts to resist practices associated with the commodification of archaeological space, objects, and heritage in the name of documentation.

I’m exited to explore more of his ideas with him and think there is real potential for a clearly-defined slow archaeology to offer substantive critique to the discipline.  

5. Objects and Enchantment. I participated in a panel on object biography where folks used the word “enchantment” more than I’ve ever encountered at an academic meeting. The papers were good and generally well-received, although I detected a consistent skepticism that object biography represents a  productive way forward for understanding of the place of objects within the broader archaeological project.

My paper was met with skepticism including a comment that my approach to archaeology (and digital artifacts) would cause children to go running from the discipline whereas the opportunity to handle an excavated object would lead to enchantment. This may be the case, although I suspect children and students these days have a greater willingness to be enchanted by digital objects than our generation does.

Despite that critique, my time at the ASOR annual meeting was enchanting, exhausting, and though provoking. I’m looking forward to next year and following up some of the conversations that I had over the course of the meeting.  

Books by their Cover

You can’t open Facebook these days without seeing a profile picture superimposed with a French flag. A year ago, profile pictures had multicolored hues in support of equal marriage rights or gay marriage. At various times of year, social media profiles sport pink for breast cancer, mustaches for prostate cancer, or various other regular designs to demonstrate solidarity or sympathy with this or that cause. Invariably, there are columns that comment or complain about a particular practice, the uncritical and uncomplicated adoption of potentially fraught symbols, and the deleterious effects of “slacktivism.” Most worry that a changed profile picture will substitute for political or social action and superficial expressions of sympathy, solidarity, or awareness will replace genuine engagement with issues. These concerns are so pervasive that they constitute part of the discourse of representation on social media and are in no ways less hackneyed or superficial than the practice that they critique. 

Personal branding on social media is no less complicated than personal branding in any medium and criticizing its simplicity is, in itself, a failure to understand the complications associated with branding and interpretation of branding across various media in our image rich society. My November mustache might be ironic, it might show I’m participating in “Movember,” or it might be that I genuinely like how I look with a mustached lip. Or it might be all these things. Most of us recognize the ambiguities present in these simple personal branding exercises (and even relish the potential for an un-ironic mustache!) and even appreciate the earnestness of people’s efforts to celebrate a cause, negotiate the political landscape, or just to show preference for one brand over another.

When it comes to branding a larger enterprise, we are less tolerant of this kind of ambiguity. I’m waist deep in type-setting a new book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota right and beginning to think a bit about cover designs. I’ve been fortunate that my collaborators on this project have offered images and designs for the cover and these designs are all visually arresting. The book is titled The Bakken Goes Boom and it should appear early next year, but the cover design project represents another chapter in the larger Branding the Bakken project. From Alec Soth’s black-and-white images of the oil smeared worker to Sarah Christianson’s The Skogens’ bedroom window, images have dominated our apprehension of the Bakken boom. It is hardly surprising that my own work documenting workforce housing in the Bakken has generated over ten thousand of photographs and videos. 

The image-driven nature of our engagement with the Bakken means that selecting the cover of the first book-length academic study of the Bakken boom takes on particular significance. Each cover represents a different aspect of the Boom and a different point of emphasis in the book (as well as a different style). 

My co-editor Kyle Conway created an arresting cover image that shows a drill rig situated near his families property in Williston.

Bakken cover off center

Photographer Kyle Cassidy who has worked with our team in the Bakken and has a contribution in the volume offered several fantastic cover designs:

Bakken goes boom cover 1

Bakken goes boom cover 2

Bakken goes boom cover 3

Bakken goes boom cover 4

Bakken goes boom cover 5

Comments and feedback are appreciated!

Objects, Clones, Context

On Thursday evening, I give a short paper at an ASOR panel called Object Biography II: Object as Magnet. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the panel. Last year the papers spurred some interesting conversation, so it didn’t take much to convince me to submit something this year.

When I sat down and started writing my paper, I initially wanted to write something about agency, then a critique of the entire concept of “object biography” (which I generally find to be an unhelpful), and finally, I decided to write something breezy and fun (for me to write, at least). My talk will be after 5pm on a day that starts with a 8:30 am meeting. I’ll be tired, I think, and my audience will almost certainly be tired. So a breezy talk might be a better way to start some conversation or at least keep people from shifting restlessly in their seats as the minutes tick toward their evening plans.

This paper also gave me a chance to make some groovy slides.

Anyway, I was more or less set on the paper below before receiving an email that part of the goal of our papers and these sessions was to begin to move toward creating a protocol which one of the panel organizers articulates as “a way of doing things that the field can actually use as we analyze and interpret objects.” I’m not sure that my paper does a very good job at producing usable knowledge. At best, I provide a slightly boring critique. 

Here’s the paper and the groovy slides:


Objects, Clones, Context

William R. Caraher, University of North Dakota
R. Scott Moore, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Delivered at the
Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research Atlanta, Georgia Thursday, November 19, 2015

The idea of an object as a magnet is attractive. It evokes the idea of the object as a node in a network of attractions and relations that draw together objects, associations, individuals, institutions, meaning, and even events and time. In fact, some scholars have suggested that objects are more than isolated nodes, but actually represent the network itself. In other words, the object does not attract meaning to it, but is meaning itself. It may be that magnet and the effects of magnetism are inseparable. 

The idea of the object as magnet also got me thinking literally about magnetism and the creation of digital objects (even if magnetic storage is giving way to solid-state technologies which are not a magnetic medium). Instead of messy magnetic metaphors, my paper today will consider a wide range of digital archaeological objects. This is particularly important both because digital objects have come to play a central role in archaeological practice, and they challenge how we think about object biography.

Digital objects are ubiquitous in archaeology today and archaeologists regularly produce thousands of digital objects each season. Unlike excavated or collected artifacts which may only seem to proliferate, derive some of their significance from being unique, and tend to remain close to their archaeological provenance, most archaeologists take active steps to ensure that digital objects are copied and distributed widely. In keeping with a sense of biography, we can call these copied and distributed objects clones. These clones, while similar to point of being identical, nevertheless exist in particular networks of technology, practice, and space.

From Artifact to Digital Object


Despite the prominence of excavated or collected artifacts in archaeological publications and arguments, most artifacts receive relatively little attention from the archaeologist. They get uncovered or recovered, washed, identified, sorted, counted, recorded, and stored in trays or boxes, dumped, or on rare intentionally destroyed. The archaeologists with whom I’ve worked on Cyprus refer to these most common artifacts as “sherds” (and it must be said with a dismissive sneer). In Greece (and on my project), we refer to them – problematically – as context pottery. I suppose this is meant to indicate that this pottery is so ordinary that it only offers context for the really important stuff or perhaps it should be regarded contextually along with other features in the trench like architecture or stratigraphy. As a survey archaeologist with a bit of a quantitative bent, I always felt sorry for these “sherds” and most of my real archaeological work has focused on recovering these objects from “the enormous condescension of” most archaeological practice.

In our work, these sherds tend to be the smallest and most granular objects recorded in archaeological practice and the most common objects assigned archaeological significance. As an aside, I’ll overlook the work done to document the chemical make up of sherds which while important remains quite rare in Mediterranean practice and is particularly unusual on a large scale. It is interesting, however, to note that scientific study of artifact whether through thin sections, XRF, or neutron activation, does recognize that archaeological objects exist on the molecular level. A sherd, in this sense, is merely an assemblage of archaeological molecules, just as a deposit is an assemblage of sherds. I don’t have much familiarity with these practices, but I introduce them as a little bit (see?) of critique on the idea that an object is a magnet. To my reading, this might imply an unnecessary division between the object itself and meaning (that is attracted to it from elsewhere?). It might be simpler to understand an object as only existing with meaning. Without meaning (or relationships) objects may well exist, but not in a useful or recognizable way.


Whatever the specifics, any process used to document these “sherds” involves the creation of at least one digital object. Our project at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, for example, recorded each sherd first as a record on a sheet of paper and then in a relational database. At Polis-Chrysochous, we skipped the paper phase and recorded directly into the laptop computer. The entry in the database involves creating a record of the object’s weight, color, and place in established or local typologies. In some cases, this record is accompanied by another digital object, a photograph, and in exceptional cases, we use a series of photographs to create a 3-D image of the artifact. The 3D image is itself made up of a series of digital objects including photographs, a point cloud, a wireframe, and a textured 3D object. Each these individual parts of the 3D image represent individual digital objects that each have particular archaeological values.

At the end of the recording process, the archaeological artifacts go back into their trays or boxes, are placed on shelves in massive storerooms, and return to relative obscurity. In all, an archaeologist might spend 20 seconds handling, identifying, and recording a sherd on one of these trays. For the sherd as an object, the process (and in many ways the utility of the object) is over, but for the digital object that comes from this interaction, its usefulness has just begun.

Digital Object as Artifact


Over the course of my surveys, excavations, and study projects, we have produced tens of thousands of these digital objects in relational database as well as digital photographs each inscribed with vital metadata and assigned a file name meaningful in our recording system. This is standard practice.

These digital objects have innumerable advantages over the fired clay objects. These digital objects can be sorted instantly. They can be duplicated almost flawlessly. They can be transported over national borders and appear in multiple places at the same time. They can be published on the web and in books, and linked to from other books and sites to form new networks and relationships. Finally, the conservation and storage of digital objects in the short term is relatively inexpensive compared, at least, to the expenses and challenges associated with the so-called storage crisis in archaeology. In so many practical ways, the digital object is more useful to the work of the archaeologist than the excavated or collected object.


In conceptual ways, digital objects can be more useful as well. The digital world in which we work is in some ways simpler than the messy world of field archaeology. The digital universe relies upon ontologies that make at least some relationships and definitions explicit and it cuts through the unsightly messiness associated with archaeological artifacts. In some ways, digital objects are the most obvious manifestations of the tidy “black boxes” that form evidence for arguments. For a digital object to have meaning, it requires a legible network of relationships that define not only how a digital object is expressed, but what it expresses. Moreover, the network of useful relationships that allow digital objects to represent archaeological knowledge tends to be visible especially in contrast to cloudy network of associations generated by archaeological artifacts. The linked data relationships follow defined pathways either within a data set (for example linking two similar objects together within the same dataset) or between datasets (an artifact to a location in GIS for example or two objects discovered at different locations).

Physical Digital Object Digital


objects rely upon more than merely bits and bytes to communicate meaning. They exist within a networks of physical objects as well, and here they manifest a bit more of the messiness typically experienced at the edge of the trowel or amidst the survey unit. Hard drives are every bit as hard (in physical terms) as solid state drives are solid. The cloud may seem ethereal, but it too is made up of routers, servers, storage, racks, chips, wires, and buildings. The devices we use to access our digital objects are made of silicon, aluminum, rare-earth, and plastics and function best in enclosed spaces with solid surfaces and comfortable chairs. Problems with the various material interfaces with digital objects will, of course, compromise the utility of these objects for archaeological analysis.


The physical media upon which digital objects depend are a complex and vital component of the material culture of archaeology. These archaeological objects which have – quite literally – a magnetic relationship with objects produced in the field have only recently received significant scrutiny as objects. The use of iPads in the field and their innovative, yet familiar, interface has renewed conversation regarding the material form of digital recording devices. Archaeology of the contemporary world and the allied field of media archaeology have likewise showed renewed interest in material form of digital media. The most recent volume of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology explored these intersections in a most productive way. An NEH sponsored conference titled “Mobilizing the Past” and sponsored by ASOR members at the from the Athienou Archaeological Project encouraged critical reflection on the intersection of digital and material tools used in archaeological field work.

Digital Objects as Magnets


The focus of today’s panels was on objects as magnets. I have taken this a bit too literally in reference to the myriad little magnetic charges that constitute so much of our digital world. At the same time, I hope my paper brings to the fore some simple examples of how archaeological work and archaeological artifacts depend upon digital objects. These digital objects have their own biographies that require us to adjust our understanding of life to allow for frequent cloning, periodic reincarnation, spontaneous bilocation, and, as with so many objects, lengthy periods of suspended animation. Every archaeologist ought to fear the prospects of zombie media which lurches across our screens in a semi-living states like so many Geocities webpages and Lotus123 spreadsheets. Digital zombies reveal the risk of disrupting the social lives of our digital objects. Bereft of proper hardware, software, and other technological infrastructures and protocols necessary to be useful for contemporary inquiries, these half-dead zombie objects, reveal our dependence on various economic, political, and institutional entities for our discipline to function.

Of course, not every digital object has equal value (so some are unlikely to return as zombies). And, I suspect, we all know of digital objects that have died unmourned on a faulty hard drive, a decommissioned server, or with the obsolesce of a particular application.

Despite the anonymous sacrifice of the forgotten digital object, their passing nevertheless disrupts part of the network of relationships that connect our analysis to the archaeological artifact. This is not a call to keep every related digital object alive on indefinite life support, but to recognize that for every poor, marginalized, sherds, there is an equally vital digital object playing its part in our discipline.

Revisions of Slow Archaeology

Over the weekend I spent some time coming to terms with some recent comments to the most recent version of my slow archaeology article. As per usual, I worked out my thoughts on the blank page and this is what I cam up with as a framework for revising my thoughts. 

One thing is clear, I was wrong about my characterization of digital practices in the field. We need to trust technology to lead us to a bright new future. We have to trust industrial practices to produce a more thorough, sophisticated, and structured understanding of the past that is consistent with our place within the 21st century university.

IMG 1617

A Revised and Revisited Slow Archaeology  

Earlier versions of this paper lacked nuanced and identified contemporary digital practices as a highly visible extension of the tradition of industrial practices in archaeology. I worried that the use of digital tools marked a tipping point in archaeological practice. In my polemic, I imagined digital tools as transforming archaeological field practices into “data collection” and removing the work of analysis from the side of the trench to the laboratory, office, or computer center. In positing this, I suspect I fell victim to the rhetoric of digital practice that celebrated increases in efficiency, accuracy, and consistency of structured data collected at trenchside and downplayed the continued presence of messy, unstructured, and irregular data that continues to emerge from archaeological fieldwork. Our tendency to “black box” both archaeological evidence occludes less systematic and structured data and practices the continue to thrive despite the emphasis on efficiency in the discipline. Earlier drafts of this paper viewed slow archaeology as a return to pre-digital practices that resisted the industrial organization. This draft offers a more subtle call that celebrates the productive inefficiencies that complement longstanding push for greater efficiencies, consistencies, and regularity in existing archaeological practice.

Slow archaeology emerges at the intersection of the messy realities of archaeological practice and the intentional and complementary ways that archaeologists recognize the limits of systematic data collection in the field. It is a complement and critique of digital archaeology inasmuch as it focuses field practices that support integrative analysis of archaeological landscapes, trenches, and objects.

To be clear from the onset, my interest in slow archaeology comes from a position of privilege. I am an academic archaeologist who relies on his research for professional advancement, but not professional survival. I have tenure, and as a result, I do not need to race against the clock to produce publications. I also have the good fortune to work on archaeological projects with the manpower, time, and funding that align closely with our research objective giving us the luxury to consider a wide range of archaeological documentation processes without particular concern for efficiency. This has given us the opportunity to explore a range of digital tools and practices from the use of iPads in the field to reliance on differential GPS units, 3D imaging technologies, relational databases, and GIS. This article then is not the frustrated expressions of a Luddite, but an argument grounded in familiarity with digital field practices.

Industrial History

Archaeology is a discipline steeped in industrial practices. From the earliest days of the discipline, archaeologists drew upon industrial practices to improve the efficiency of moving large quantities of earth from sites. The organization of the workforce along hierarchical lines further reflected both industrial work-discipline as well as the influence of the military on archaeological practices. As one reviewer observed Pitt Rivers and Wheeler both drew on their military experiences as much as Schliemann drew on his experiences as an industrialist.

Of course, the industrial influences on archaeology go beyond simply the experiences of the earliest excavators and intersect with the position of the archaeology as a modern academic discipline. The modern academy reveals the profound influences of industrial principles of management and organization. The desire to produce new research more efficiently and more quickly has led to pressures on academic researchers to streamline their documentation practices in the field and to emphasize their ability to collect data and produce results in a systematic and consistent way.

Data and Discourse

To suggest that industrial practices in archaeology or even the latest neoliberal iteration of the academic industrial complex has driven a preoccupation with data collection in the field would be to overlook the influence of “New Archaeology.” New Archaeology strengthened an explicit commitment to using robust, often quantifiable, datasets to reconstruct ancient practices. The rise of intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean introduced rigorous data collection practices to landscape archaeology in the Aegean. This marked a shift from practices grounded in less systematic and often individual efforts to explore and document sites on a regional scale across Greece to a more rigorous and eventually intensive method for documenting artifacts on the surface at a increasingly high level of spatial resolution. At the same time, excavation practices in Mediterranean shifted from traditional trench notebooks to various forms of context recording forms. A growing commitment to not only stratigraphic excavation practices, but also Harris Matrices marked an increased interest in defining depositional contexts at as high a resolution vertically as intensive survey documents horizontally. Harris Matrices represent stratigraphic deposits in a formal and generalized way and offer a tidy way to present the relationships between deposits now documented at a highly granular level.

Archaeological publications, then, present the data produced through these systematic approaches to field work and link them explicitly to archaeological conclusions. This clear link between systematically produced archaeological data and conclusions is commendable and so consistently presented as to be expected procedure for almost all archaeological publications.

Field Practice

The contexts offered by industrial practices in archaeology and the rise of “New Archaeology” offers little room for a slow archaeology. The use of digital tools in the field streamlines the movement of data from trench side to publication especially as the publication of data has slowly become part of the expected routine of archaeological dissemination. My own publication of an intensive survey on Cyprus grounded our arguments directly in a substantial body of published data in keeping with archaeological conventions. Latour refers to the tidiness associated with the publication of data and scientific arguments as “black boxing” which like the neatly arrange Harris Matrix, occludes the distracting and messy details of the field or laboratory practices. One result of “black boxing” in archaeology, is that it emphasized field practices that produce tidy data as a way of demonstrating the efficient adherence to scientific methods (broadly construed). The tendency to present neat, clearly defined, and often quantitative datasets in publications also serves to demonstrate efficiency in field methods and procedures. In other words, the publication process itself has led to the privileging of certain kinds of documentation processes in the field.

It is hardly surprising that scholarly attention has focused on the development of a new generation of digital tools well-suited to collect the kind of data traditionally associated with published archaeological results and ongoing methodological conversations. For example, the use of tablets to collect information at trench side that efficiently populates and syncs with databases hosted on secure servers emphasizes the collection of information that can easily be sorted, aggregated, and projected spatially. The gains in efficiency associated with the trench side collection of data and its aggregation and dissemination would seem to assume the kind of analysis that depends upon the re-assembly of relatively granular data. In early 20th century excavations, by comparison, it would be possible for a project director to document the excavation of an entire site in a single notebook. In late 20th century excavations, each trench had a notebook. Today, a trench might have dozens (if not more) context forms and hundreds of fields in a database.

My view of slow archaeology has consistently called for greater attention to practices that encourage and document analysis at the trench side or amid the survey unit. To my mind, these practices focus on the production of analyses that both resists efficient granularity and embraces integrative and synthetic documentation of archaeological thought. This contrasts with at least the rhetoric of archaeological data “collection” from the field that characterizes trench side and survey unit based practices as documentation rather than analysis.

Critiques of slow archaeology have emphasized that their interest in collecting more granular data from each trench does not exclude the recording of more traditional forms of less structured data. A trench-side iPad is not just a window to a database, but also a digital notebook, a digital sketch pad, and a tool that can even collect a new range of relatively unstructured and unconventional data from audio recording to video. Indeed, there is little intrinsic in digital tools (except perhaps at the level of the microprocessor) that requires us to collect archaeological data in a more granular way.

Moreover, some have criticized how I have characterized the deliberate and integrative approaches associated with traditional archaeological practices as intentionally inefficient or privileging the collection of less-structured data. In reality,the industrial and scientific influences on archaeology pre-date by a over a century the widespread adoption of digital tools. As a result, practices that may appear today as drawing on pre-industrial practices associated with craft production – like manual drafting of trench plans – were, in their own time, regarded steeped in scientific and industrial rigor. In early excavations the daily or regular trench dairy was not a synthetic alternative to the database, but its direct predecessor. What I have characterized as trench side analysis was, in fact, efforts to document the process of excavation at a level adequate for future publication.

Following on my misunderstanding of past archaeological practices, critics of slow archaeology have suggested that streamlining data collection using digital tools actually holds forth the prospect of allow more time in the field for reflective analysis. Technologies have increasingly freed excavators, trench supervisors, survey team leaders, and field directors from the tedious routine of documentation and provided them with time to reflect, analyze, and interpret ongoing field work. The need and opportunity to do this in the field is less fundamental to archaeological work and more a new critique of longstanding industrial practices in the discipline. Slow archaeology is not a form of resistance to digital field practices, but at least a crucial byproduct, and perhaps its inspiration.

Needless to say, these critique have given me pause. My arguments for slow archaeology have focused on the intersection of technology and archaeological with the idea that the tools we use in fieldwork shape the arguments that we make. While this may well be true, it is also possible that the tools we chose, reflect our ideological, methodological, and disciplinary commitments. This line of argument smacks a bit of a kind of idealism that has driven and justified the growing efficiency of industrial practices throughout history, and while it is hard to deny that technology has improved the quality of goods produced by the assembly line, it is more difficult to argue that industrial technology has improved our quality of life.

Industry and science have exerted a pervasive and expansive influence both on contemporary archaeological practice and the publication of archaeological arguments. Pressures to produce more, in less time, and in a more transparent way has pushed archaeological practice to embrace digital technologies as a tool document (or collect) archaeological data in a rigorous and efficient way. As a tenured professor with little pressure to publish quickly and a critical appreciation of the limits and potential of digital tools, it is relatively easy for me to consider the importance of reflexive practice, to spend time on analysis in the field, and to challenge the value of digital recording techniques. My projects enjoy robust digital infrastructures, skilled trench and field team supervisors, and colleagues who are willing to embrace less conventional field practices as part of an effort to understand landscapes and sites at the level of experience. Whether this more deliberate and slow approach to field work manifests itself in our final publication remains to be seen.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s been a pretty exciting week at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World headquarters. We saw the first sustained snow, I started pecking away at a long overdue project, wrapped up a conference paper (next week!), published a collection of reprints from North Dakota Quarterly, and watched the start of David Warner’s mighty double century

Despite all the excitement, I have had some time to grab a gaggle of quick hits and varia. 

IMG 4037IMG 4036What?

University Press Week

While The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota does not conform to the characteristics of most “real” university presses, I think it’s probably fair that we celebrate a little at the margins of the event. To get into the spirit of the week, be sure to check out the American Association of University Press’s blog tour with particular attention to Tuesday’s posts on the Future of Academic Publishing.

Anyone who has read this blog over the past couple years knows I’m incredibly sanguine about the future of academic publishing. Like many of the folks at university presses or mainstream academic publishing, I recognize the first decades of the 21st century as period of tremendous disruption to academic publishing with the rapid growth of digital outlets and technologies reshaping the publishing landscape on a regular basis. The nimble character of many university presses has made it possible for them to position themselves at the cutting edge of academic publishing and to find ways to leverage productively both digital media and the growing expectations of open access movement.

Further hurdles await, of course, as universities race to adopt 20th-century business models (dominated by an image of the efficient assembly line) in their effort to convince legislative and popular stakeholders holding 19th-century attitudes that they’re ready to take on the 21st century. The expectations that all parts of the university bring in revenue (which is often narrowly defined) willfully ignores the tremendous impact that 21st century companies like Google, Apple, and even IBM have wrought from creative enclaves, skunk-works, and policies that divorce innovative from profitability (at least in the short-term). University publishing runs the risk of being squeezed out, at the very moment when its potential to contribute both to the intellectual and, as much as we’re loath to admit it, financial the life of the university and community is greatest. A nimble, adventurous, risk-taking university press can probe the edge of media economy. This is unlikely to be a revenue neutral endeavor, but if we see universities as 21st-century organizations, we realize that ideas have an equal part in the production of value as products.

A few more observations:

1. Collaboration and Cooperation. A number of the established university presses have celebrated the collaborative spirit of the university press. As the academic world has come more and more to embrace collaborative and cooperative work, the university press represents an appealing model. The shading of professional skills (editing, design, marketing, et c.) into craft allows for individuals to move from the production of content (for example, in a traditional scholarly mode) to the design, layout, and editing of a volume with minimal disruption. This allows for a press to scale quickly from a few people to a larger group of folks for a project because so many of the basic abilities are shared across academia. 

2. Grounding the Global in the Local. As big presses look more and more to big books with big audiences, they have left room for local presses to develop. Unlike big presses with established overheads and global reach, small presses can cultivate niche audiences, collaborate with local institutions, and produce meaningful books that help transform big ideas into local realities. This is where the rubber meets the road, and local presses play a key role in this.  

3. Dynamic. Anyone who has paid even a little attention to the publishing industry knows that it is in a tremendous state of flux right now. Books, blogs, ebook, open access, open peer review, price gouging, pirates, and print-on-demand services have transformed how we think about disseminating content. Small presses have an advantage in that they can pivot quickly, experiment with new media types and processes, and focus on media as much as delivery methods. This is especially the case (see my point 1) as the tools for engaging the publishing industry have democratized over the past two decades. It is now possible to produce high-quality, visually interesting, media on a laptop computer, sell it without a storefront, market it over social-media, and disseminate it across multiple platforms from a comfy chair in front of a fire.   

4. Fun. As I have become more and more engaged in the world of academic publishing (as both a producer and a publisher), I’ve become more and more interested in the potential for academic publishing to be fun. When I go to an academic conference or work on an archaeological field project, I have fun. This doesn’t mean that I don’t take it seriously, but I find the interplay between scholars, students, and ideas exciting and entertaining. I sometimes fear that the business side of publishing – with deadlines, formalities, and budgets – robs the process of some of the joy associated with moving interesting content to completed publication. I think small presses provide a space to cultivate a shared sense of mission, energy, collegiality, and fun. The absence of institutional structures allows small presses to develop the same energy as any number of ‘zines, doomed record labels, and academic projects. There’s something about the DIY spirit that makes any undertaking a bit more of an adventure.

Do take some time this week to click over to your favorite University Press website, and please check out our friends at the Institute for Regional Studies Press at North Dakota State University, and be sure to go and download something for free from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota!

Atari Artifacts and Assemblage

Over the last month or so, I’ve been continuing to work on an excavation report, of sorts, for the Atari dig in 2014 in New Mexico (or as I’m calling it the Alamogordo Atari Expedition). The task has been challenging. First, I’ve had to pull apart the intersection of our work documenting the site and our role in the documentary. I also had to produce some kind of narrative surrounding the work planning the excavations, which started in 2011, if not earlier. Finally, I had to try to unpack and organize what we saw, recorded, and documented on the two days of excavation. 

As I have blogged about in the past, the hyper-abundance of modern material makes any effort to document a modern period assemblage overwhelming if we rely on traditional, fine-grain, archaeological documentation practices. Bill Rathje’ famous “Garbage Project” contracted the assemblages that they studied through rigorous sampling practices and did most of their documentation in “laboratory” conditions rather than on site. They sampled discard primarily at the level of household and prior to the trash being moved to a sanitary landfill. Their work documenting the discard was done not at the curbside, but at an on-campus site where the analyzed household trash could be sorted, documented, and discarded. This takes nothing away from the important of their work, both to the discipline and to how we understand garbage, but they structured their work to accommodate the challenge of modern abundance. 

Compared to the Garbage Project, the landfill excavation at Alamogordo was chaos. On the first day of work at the site, the excavators removed a vast quantity of material from the site, but it was done very quickly. Safety concerns prevented us from having direct access to the material being removed from the landfill, but we had an observation point close enough to the trench that we could easily see the type of materials being removed. For example, we were able to recognize that the landfill contained but domestic discard – ranging from movie posters, lawn clippings, and coffee grounds – as well as objects that spoke to the distinct character of the region’s economy. At one point, the excavator struggled with a parachute that billowed in the wind when removed from the trench to remind us of the local aerospace and military installation in the area.


On day two, we were able to examine more closely material from the lowest levels of the landfill which were primarily domestic in character. We used a 5-gallon bucket to sample loads removed from the trench by the excavator and recorded our observations on a digital audio recorder. The trash from these samples included well-preserved paper documents, Christmas decorations, cardboard boxes, beer cans, magazines, lawn clippings, and diapers. These samples, however, were neither large enough nor systematic enough to produce distinct observations on the character of the Alamogordo landfill. 

Finally, we recognized that not all of the assemblage present at the Alamogordo landfill was visible. As we dug through the documents leading up to the 2014 dig, we came across the reports from air and soil testing at the landfill. These tests demonstrated that the decomposition of organic material and discharges from potentially toxic chemicals in the landfill produced measurable quantities of various compounds. These compounds are not naturally occurring, but the direct result of human discard patterns in the area.

Waste Excavation Plan Amendment Ltr Apr14 copy

As archaeologists, we typically regard the visible, material artifacts from a site as constituting the site’s assemblage. The more technologically and scientific of us might sample artifacts for residue or do some thin sections or petrology of ceramic objects from a site, but I can’t recall the chemical compounds that constitute either objects or evidence for use being generalized on the scale of air and soil testing at a landfill. The modern archaeological assemblage includes more than what we can see.