Friday Varia and Quick Hits

April 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am under brutal, continuous assault by allergies this month so I had a slow, headachy, mucus-filled morning at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Headquarters.

But, the blog must go on and my readers deserve their quick hits and varia on this springlike Easter weekend.

Maiden Flight

How should things end?

April 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

For the last five years, I’ve taught the undergraduate methods class in the history department at the University of North Dakota every semester (History 240). Next year, I go on sabbatical and when I come back, it’s my understanding that my services will no longer be required in this class. So this will be my last time teaching the course for the foreseeable future.

I designed the course in 2009, and made it a combination historiography and historical research methods. The goal was to introduce students to the history of the discipline of history and to use that to situate how we approach historical research and writing today. In general, the course was successful, although I am not entirely sure that the methods introduced in the course were reinforced enough to be second nature for our students by the time they reached our capstone class. In fact, we’re introducing a class between History 240 and History 440 (our capstone) next year to reinforce many of the basic research skills introduced in history 240. As a result, the character of History 240 will have to change. More than that, I suspect that my own idiosyncratic approach to the course will not continue. That’s ok, though. I’ve had my time.

The end of teaching this class did get me thinking about how to end a class. My usual approach at the end of the semester is to scribble down some notes about how the class went and what I might want to change. These notes and some quick and dirty statistical summary of student performance (based on grades) allowed to adjust the class the next semester by shifting the emphasis slightly, reinforce key points, and even eliminate assignments on which students performed irregularly.  

This semester, however, there is no need to do that. I’m not teaching the class again, and if I do, it won’t be the same class. So as the semester winds down in this course, I find myself without a clear sense of purpose. I guess I never developed or even considered an endgame strategy.

Thinking about my lack of endgame, got me to reflect on the various initiatives that begin with promise on university campuses, but seem to lack a formal endgame. This is particular significant at a place like UND where our administrators rotate through every 3-5 years and bring with them a new set of priorities, strategies, and vision. More than that, the economy, technology, and disciplinary boundaries appear to have entered a period of particular fluidity and dynamism that calls into question the value of any project or program that would continue 

If faculty have the initiative and resources to invest in new programs or projects, then, then we must also understand the environment in which we work. Project, programs, and even classes need to have endgames which are more than just slipping quietly into sabbatical or watching interest in a program or project decline until it is quietly discontinued. Just as archaeological projects generally have plans to move from field work to publication, I wonder whether programs and projects on campus should have requirements for productive, reflective conclusions. These conclusions not only allow for the assessment (and if we know anything about the modern university, it’s that they love assessment) of the results of the program, the class, and the project over a set length of time, but also hold all parties accountable for the resources committed to the undertaking. Productive undertakings that succeed in their goals will have the opportunity to make a strong case of continued support – over another fixed duration with another set of clear goals; unproductive undertakings or ones that do not achieve their goals over a realistic span of time, will not get continued support freeing up resources for new, innovative programs.   

This approach may seem overly mechanistic and run counter to an open-ended spirit of humanistic inquiry. But, spending the last few weeks thinking about the trajectory of a course has made me realize that a class’s endgame has to produce a more satisfying and productive results than my current situation. As I wrap up teaching History 240 – perhaps for the last time ever and certainly the last time in its current configuration – I’m struck by a feeling of pointlessness. Five years of teaching the class and I have no ability to reflect on what I accomplished over that duration in a synthetic or systematic way. 

Matthew Kirschenbaum Lecture at UND Today

April 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

The UND Working Group in Digital & New Media is happy to present “Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing,” A Virtual Talk by Matthew Kirschenbaum. The talk is free and open to the public and will take place at 4pm on Wednesday, April 16 in the East Asian Room in the Chester Fritz Library. You should be able to stream his talk here.

KirschenbaumFlyer pdf

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH, an applied think tank for the digital humanities). He is also an affiliated faculty member with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at Maryland, and a member of the teaching faculty at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. Kirschenbaum served as the first director of the new Digital Cultures and Creativity living/learning program in the Honors College at Maryland.

A 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, Kirschenbaum specializes in digital humanities, electronic literature and creative new media (including games), textual studies, and postmodern/experimental literature. He has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, and was trained in humanities computing at Virginia’s Electronic Text Center and Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (where he was the Project Manager of the William Blake Archive). His dissertation was the first electronic dissertation in the English department at Virginia and one of the very first in the nation.

Kirschenbaum’s first book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, was published by the MIT Press in early 2008 and went on to receive numerous awards. Kirschenbaum serves on the editorial or advisory boards of a number of projects and publications, including Postmodern Culture, Text Technology, Textual Cultures, MediaCommons, and futureArch. His work has received coverage in the Atlantic, New York Times, National Public Radio, Wired, Boing Boing, Slashdot, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. For more information, see his website.

Blogs and Archaeology Published Quickly

April 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been nudging a draft of an article on blogging archaeology forward a little bit each week. I’ve posted part of it here already. The first part of the article looks at blogging among archaeologists as a community of practice. The second part will look at blogging as one of the ways that archaeologists are speeding up the pace of archaeological knowledge production.

This is done not by archaeologists working faster, but rather through a regular stream of information available about archaeological research on the web. Transparency removes what appears to be long pauses from the field work and research process and makes visible the incremental efforts, small revelations, and baffling setbacks that characterize archaeological research.  

Here you go:

Compared to the social media, blogs develop content rather slowly. Even the most fast paced commercial blog rarely rewards more then two or three visits a day to the site. Academic blogs, true to to longstanding rhythms of disciplinary production, tend to update on a much more gradual schedule. At the same time, compared to the traditional print publications, the practice and medium of blogging allows the posts to appear at a blistering pace. Unencumbered by such time consuming processes as editorial oversight, peer review, typesetting, and proofreading, blogs can appear as quickly as the author has words to fill them. Of course, the speed at which blogs posts can appear and the absence of peer or editorial oversight represent blogging practice, and this has attracted the attention of critics who remain skeptical of the value of blogging to the larger academic discourse. Our ability to push unfiltered archaeological knowledge into the web has both outpaced the institutional practices designed to evaluate and control the flow of academic knowledge as well as our interpretative habits which often rely on clear generic indicators to define the character and utility of scholarly production.

Field archaeology is a meticulous process that proceeds at its own pace dictated by the vagaries of manpower, artifact recovery, and recording. The publication process frequently fall prey to the same gradualist approach as famous excavations can take years or even decades to reach publication. While some of this can be attributed to the workflows of particular excavators and their teams, at least some of the issues reside in the traditional process of publishing a field project which involves significant time dedicated to review, editing, and layout. The published results of the field publications are regarded as definitive, although even the most hardened empiricists recognize a difference between a preliminary excavation report and the final publication.

The basic character of blogging streamlines many of these concerns, traditionally going with limited editorial attention and drastically simplified layouts. Both in terms of practice and as a medium, blogging lacks the substantial friction associated with print publication, has allows for almost instantaneous online publication. Bloggers now report on field projects from the field and use the blog to speculate on their work, hypothesize, and even report tentative conclusions. These practices not only lift the veil on the interpretative processes that produce archaeological knowledge (Morgan and Eve 2012; Maguire 2008 for similar attitudes), but also communicate some of the experiences of archaeology from the edge of the trowel. My blog, for example, both documented our misguided expectation that a basilica style church stood on the site of a Hellenistic fortification, and explored the tensions among the project’s senior staff as we struggled to balance the educational and research components of our work. A similar, if more radically inclusive process, was used on the Prescot Street excavations in the U.K. in which all participants were invited to blog and to document their work on the excavation.

While few will argue against the value of blogging for provide a sense of the archaeological experience and to expose archaeological practice to a wider audience, there are limits to the kind of immediacy and transparency that blogging can provide. For example, some nations control stringently the right to reproduce images of objects, architecture, and sites, but have yet to develop comprehensive policies extending to the digital realm. A blog may or may not represent a digital publication. On an even more practical level, announcing the results of an ongoing excavation during the season might make a site more susceptible to looting or other forms of disruption. As with all archaeological work, the limitations and opportunities of a particular medium or practice is not the final work on a decision to disseminate information.

If field work blogs have the potential to make the field processes more transparent, research blogs invite readers into the creative and generative process associated with scholarship. The ability to present ongoing research to a wide audience of peers fits into a continuum of scholarly communication that begins with the conference paper (or perhaps with the informal conversation) and culminates in the peer reviewed book or article. The blog is less clearly vetted than the conference paper or the late, barely lamented, “note” or “correspondence” section of academic journals. In the lead up to the 2014 Society of American Archaeology blogging panel, Doug’s Archaeology Blog curated a blog carnival involving many prominent archaeological bloggers. The responses to the question “Why do you blog?” revealed the range of purposes associated with research from publishing snippets of programing code useful to archaeologists, to staking claim to academic ideas in process and sharing academic problems as they arise in scholarship. As S.W. Kansa and F. Deblauwe have recently noted in their survey of web tools for research in Zooarchaeology , scholarly use of blogs to circulate research remains inconsistent (Kansa and Deblauwe 2011). The practice of exposing ideas to critique is part of the academic process, but we have yet to completely exploit the potential of blogging for communicating ongoing research.

The recent responses to the prompt posted on Doug’s Archaeology Blog likewise demonstrate the importance of the public nature of blogging which has allowed it to become a venue to communicate scholarly work to a broader audience. The popular appeal of archaeology has provided a ready-made audience for efforts to bridge the gap between academic research and the public fascination with the past. At the same time, there is an important aspect of outreach in archaeological blogging. Because archaeologists rely on an informed public both to identify and to protect archaeological sites and objects. In a broader sense blogging to a public audience allows archaeologists to communicate disciplinary boundaries and expertise to a wider group of stakeholders.

The process of blogging research as it occurs also increases the pace of archaeological knowledge production by disseminating and acknowledging the significance of provisional conclusions. Archaeologists make tentative observations regularly over the course of their research and analysis. By making these public on a blog, we demonstrate that the production of archaeological knowledge is not always a plodding, incremental, ponderous slog through reams of data, but often jumps and dances across a landscape of ingenious false starts, brilliant failed hypotheses, and provocative dead ends. Making the intellectual leaps and bounds public hints at both the importance of process and the potential utility of failure for both the academic community and the general public. While it may seem like archaeological publication takes years because of inactivity on the part of archaeologist (and surely some of that is true), in most cases, archaeological analysis is rarely stalled by long delays and is regularly punctuated with exciting, if incremental accomplishments. Archaeology done quickly makes these little victories (and failures) visible.

Punk Archaeology, Buried Atari, and Disciplinary Anxiety

April 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

This weekend, I finished R. Guins’ impressive new book Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Games Afterlife. As people who follow me on the social medias know, I am heading to Alamagordo, New Mexco next week to excavate a deposit of millions (perhaps) of Atari games with a documentary film grew directed by Zak Penn, Prof. Guins himself, and some of the Punk Archaeology Collective (Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, and K. Lindsay Eaves). I was super excited about this possibility when Andrew Reinhard first brokered our participation, and reading Guins’ book got me more excited.

Guins positioned the study of early ’80s video games in the context of performance (although not explicitly). In six thoughtful chapters, he considered how scholars, players, collectors, conservators, and fans engage video games in a range of contexts from the museum to the arcade and warehouse. Guins himself venerated early games in the Smithsonian collection. Conservators, lovingly restored, fixed, and even scrapped for parts neglected and broken games. The public scoffed, reminisced, and, more importantly, played the games in various arcades, museum exhibits, and conventions occupying the familiar pose in front of the cabinet with legs positioned shoulder width apart. These different postures framed the afterlife of video games through individual actions that articulate their significance. The various performances communicated made clear the differing social meanings for the games. The gaze of a museum visitor at an arcade game set apart in a glass case is different from that of a veteran restorer laborious applying black lacquer or an enthusiast immersed in game play at a meet up of vintage games.

This emphasis on how we engage these relics of a past era grounds the games firmly in the present. The book does very little with the conceptualization, production, and design of video games other than recognize that these stages are also part of the biography of these objects. Guins interviews a famed game packaging artist and a few game designers including those associated with some of the earliest video games, but he does not talk to folks involved with managing the design teams, manufacturing the games, selling them in retail stores, or marketing them to the masses. As a result, the games Guins studied spoke for themselves in the hands of consumers, connoisseurs, and scholars.

Chapter 5 was dedicated to the famed E.T. burial ground in New Mexico where Atari apparently buried millions of overproduced and returned games in 1983 in the city’s landfill. The team of archaeologists is going to this site to supervise the extraction of these games and to observe the context of their deposition and recovery. In a simple way, we are positioning ourselves in relation to these games as archaeologists and by doing so we hope to impart some social significance to these artifacts, their deposition, and their recovery.

In the spirit of punk, our actions will denature the objects. As R. Harrison and J. Schofield have noted,  punks challenged our assumptions of the purpose and function of zipper, safety pins, make-up, and even musical instruments. Feedback was music, zippers served no function, and torn jeans defined their ruined state to create an identity dependent upon questioning the standards of civility in polite society. Punk rockers performed in churches, mental hospitals, and abandoned buildings intentionally calling into question the architectural context for musical performance in the same way that our punk archaeology conference brought academics together in a Fargo bar to give papers on archaeology and music.

Next week, when we participate in excavating 30 year old Atari games from a New Mexico landfill, we’ll be performing another transgressive action by assigning corporate, consumer “junk” archaeological status and figuring out how to extract a sample of the possibly millions of cartridges and related matter from a landfill. More than that, we’re going to do this while a documentary crew looks on, with a limited budget, specific priorities, and a different kind of appreciation of the objects of our excavation. For example, the production company wants to give away some of the excavated objects and apparently have permission to do this.

As the idea of what we’re going to do next week sunk in, I immediately became apprehensive. First off, I’m a Mediterranean archaeologists and despite my dalliances in the archaeology of the contemporary world, I am far more comfortable with the rules of archaeology in Cyprus or Greece than in the U.S. More than that, I am more comfortable with objects and material that are traditionally archaeological in terms of date (i.e. at least 100 years old!), context (within a controlled research setting), and policies (governed by a clear set of cultural property laws and policies). While this is not meant to diminish the cultural significance of more recent objects, it does push me to consider the limits of a formal “archaeological status” – in the narrowest, disciplinary sense.

Is it the buried location of the Atari games that make them archaeological?

Would a million E.T. cartridges in a warehouse attract the same kind of archaeological scrutiny?

Furthermore, an E.T. cartridge in a private collection does not produce the same kind of ethical tension as, say, a well preserved African red slip plate dating to the 6th century A.D. In other words, the nature of a modern cultural object works against my traditional disciplinary expectations of significance. (And for those of you who are regular readers of this blog, this is the same tension that arose when I first started working on my North Dakota Man Camp Project).

On the one hand, the discipline of archaeology becomes centered on process rather than location or object. On the other hand, it is clear that the limits imposed by the location of the games in a landfill (and the toxicity of the site), the limits imposed by our collaboration with a documentary film crew, and the need to use backhoes and other heavy equipment, defy a narrow reading of archaeological process. Our work in Alamogordo will be at the fringes of disciplinary practice at best, and the most useful thing about the exercise will be a chance to reflect on the limits of archaeology as performance. Just as video games enter the realm of “culture” through the performance of curators, conservators, and scholars, the limits of the discipline come through the posture of its practitioners.  

I’m left thinking about a lovely poem by Cris Kirkwood:

Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau
Some belong to strangers and some to folks you know
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand
To beautify the foothills and shake the many hands

Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
You see a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words

When you’ve finished with the mop then you can stop
And look at what you’ve done
The plateau’s clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work – it was fun

Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
You see a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words

Many hands began to scan around for the next plateau
Some said it was Greenland and some say Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
Those are all just guesses
Wouldn’t help you if they could…

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

April 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Spring has finally arrived here on the North Plains and the snow piles are rapidly shrinking. Traditionally this is the end of the snow and the beginning of the “mud” season. 

IMG 1254

I have my tickets to Greece and, by the end of the today, my tickets to Alamogordo. I have three manuscripts in some degree of “written-ness” and my classes are set to wrap up more or less on schedule despite missing a week with snow days.

Things are good and hectic, but I still have plenty of time for some quick hits and varia.

The Northern Levant at the End of Antiquity

April 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

I was pretty excited to read Jesse Casana’s very recent article on the Late Roman landscape of the Northern Levant in the most recent Oxford Journal of Archaeology. I’ve been poking, in a tentative way, around this region lately (via articles and books, mind you) in an effort to situate Cyprus more clearly in its regional context. Casana’s article was particularly insightful because he relied heavily on evidence from survey archaeology.

He drew upon a number of recent survey projects (Ghab Regional Survey and the Amuq Valley Regional Project) to demonstrate that the lower Orontes Valley in the immediate neighborhood of Antioch was densely settled throughout the 5th and 6th centuries. The settlements on these fertile valley bottoms have largely been overlooked by scholars of the Late Roman period distracted, it would seem, by the dramatic remains of the “Dead Cities” of the limestone massif some 20 km to the west. The Dead Cities are remarkably well-preserved largely because the relatively arid landscape of the limestone massif was not reoccupied in later periods leaving the substantial limestone structures standing until today.  Moreover, scholars working in the Orontes Valley tended to study  the prominent tell sites which primarily date to the Bronze Age and Iron Age and overlooked the scattered tiles and ceramics that provide evidence for Roman and Late Roman occupation of these regions.

The evidence for Late Roman occupation in this region was substantial and, as Casana documented in a small-scale excavation, included elaborate buildings whose walls were either robbed for building material in later times or were made of mud brick. Casana argues that these apparently affluent settlements developed in response to markets in Antioch, Apamea, and accessed by sea from the coast of the North Levant. The Dead Cities, occupying more marginal land, are part of this same process of producing for booming urban markets and dynamic regional trade.  

Casana’s understanding of the boom in the Orontes Valley coincides with my reading of settlement on Cyprus. The Late Roman period in the East – perhaps into the 7th century on Cyprus – represented a period of urban prosperity, a high degree of monetization, and thriving regional markets in the Eastern Mediterranean stimulated at least, in part, through imperial policy and the needs of the army on the frontiers and the capital at Constantinople. The opportunities of the market stimulated the exploitation of marginal lands and this coincided with a gradual diversification of agricultural production from strictly subsistence practices to limited, opportunistic production for market. As Michael Decker has argued for the same region marginal lands sometimes become opportunities for niche production and the traditional reading of the Dead Cities on the limestone massif suggested that these villages produced olive oil primarily for export (although more recent work has shown that the villages may have also produced wine and grain perhaps for local consumption). 

As a conclusion, Casana frames the issues involving the structure of settlement in the Northern Levant as primarily archaeological in character. In other words, the remarkable preservation of the Dead Cities of the limestone massif has led scholars to overlook and mischaracterize contemporary settlement on the more fertile lands of the Orontes valley. This, as one can imagine, distorted the reading of settlement in this region and overlooked the massive expansion of settlement present in the region. The work of the two surveys summarized by Casana brings the Northern Levant in line with contemporary settlement patterns in the so-called “busy countryside” of Late Roman Cyprus. Like the Northern Levant, the booming urbanism of Late Roman Cyprus and access to the substantial and monetized Eastern Mediterranean economic world supported the expansion of settlement across the island. When the cohesive Eastern Mediterranean market faltered in the face of invasions and plagues in the later 7th century (on Cyprus and perhaps in the Levant as well), urban areas declined and regional markets returned to levels prior to the momentary stimulus provided by the state and an exception period of economic and political integration.     

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