Friday Varia and Quick Hit

The long tail of winter has decided to wag a bit this week and next here in North Dakotaland. We not only had temperatures that were comfortably below 0° F but are also looking forward to snow over the weekend and into next week. It looks like April will come in like a lion. Hopefully, it’ll go out like a lamb.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to hunker down inside this weekend. It’s baseball’s opening day, the NBA playoff push is underway, the NCAA basketball final four is happening, and there’s F1 (in Australia), IPL in India, and at least two intriguing boxing cards featuring one featuring Anthony Joshua and the other headlined by the always exciting Robeisy Ramirez. 

Just a brief reminder, yesterday was a new book day.

This is in addition to a stack of reading to do (including my annual tour through the work of our creative writing students) and the final fussing around with my book. All this and still a little time for a few quick hits and varia:

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New Book Day: Archaeology as Festival: Virtual wanderings through festivalCHAT during Covid-19

It’s always fun to announce a new book here on the ole bloggeroo and it’s even MORE fun (it turns out) to announce a new book that I didn’t have to layout and design. This means that I don’t have worry about some kind problem creeping in during production or a dead hyperlink on the website or some other “mini-catastrophe” (as I call them).

In any event, I’m happy to announce the publication of 

Archaeology as Festival: Virtual wanderings through festivalCHAT during Covid-19. Edited by Rachael Kiddey and William Caraher. Studies in Contemporary and Historical Archaeology, 9. BAR International Series 3120. Oxford, 2023.

You can grab a copy of the introduction here and the table of contents here.

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Ethics and Aesthetics in the Anthropocene

I really liked this recent piece by Þóra Pétursdóttir and Tim Flohr Sørensen in Archaeological Dialogues (2023) titled “Archaeological encounters: Ethics and aesthetics under the mark of the Anthropocene.”

I have plenty of friends who will likely find this kind of article unconvincing or, at very least, not compelling, despite its genuine efforts to address concerns raised by scholars who see “the material turn” as a way to sidestep urgent ethical and political questions. That said, I think the case for a more aesthetically engaged way of thinking about the present that draws upon more creative ways of considering agency and materiality.

In doing this, Pétursdóttir and Sørensen stress that the relationship between ethical judgements and empirical knowledge is fraught. This is an observation that many have made concerning pseudoarchaeology as well, when they attempt to argue that pseudoarchaeology is unethical because it is unscientific (and largely imply the converse that archaeology is ethical because of science). Of course, I understand that the issue with pseudoarchaeologists is not ONLY that they’re unethical, but that they claim to be scientific (and also in many cases advocate for various forms of (pseudo)scientific racism and the like) when they aren’t.

The article is too rich and dense to summarize here, but I would encourage anyone who is reading it to check out note 1 and their brief but salient critique of the contemporary. It seems to me that the authors extend their aesthetic argument, albeit briefly, to the notion of time which undermines (heh) the ego-reference point approach to archaeological work which locates the archaeologist in the present (and the past beneath them). This approach, of course, is laced with cultural assumptions not the least of which involves the expectation that the archaeologist themselves is separate — stratigraphically and temporally — from the material that they seek to excavate. There are all sorts of ethical reasons to avoid an uncritical acceptance of the concept of contemporaneity in relation to both archaeology and the Anthropocene. As Amitav Ghosh famously quipped in the context of a world shaped by climate change: the poor experience the future first. I’m hoping that the Graham Harman and Christopher Witmore, Objects Untimely: Object-Oriented Philosophy and Archaeology which drops later this month (or sometime next month or whatever) will shed additional light on the issue of objects, archaeology, and time.

Finally, this article gives me some food for thought as I start to tentatively look ahead to my next writing project which I’ve pitched here on the blog. I want to see if I can write in more interesting ways that support more speculative and open-ended views of archaeology. My hope is that this doesn’t somehow suggest that empirical and “scientistical” approaches to archaeology do not contribute to the formation of a more ethical discipline, but to instead show that the route to a more ethical and meaningful discipline has to proceed along multiple pathways.  

Can Our New AI Overlords Write Chapter Abstracts?

As I’m preparing my book for final submission, I am confronted with the groan-worthy task of having to prepare abstracts not only for the entire book, which is to be expected, but also abstracts for every chapter (presumably for digital circulation).

This is a good bit of work and I started to fool around a bit with various AI summarizers to see whether it would be possible streamline my abstracting of these chapter. So I asked one of the summarizing robots to conjure an abstract for my introduction:

This document discusses the archaeology of the contemporary American experience, exploring how archaeological methods and principles can be applied to understand the present in new ways. The document highlights various case studies, including the Undocumented Migration Project, the archaeology of supermarkets, and the study of contemporary behaviors and formation processes. The concept of contemporaneity allows for multiple overlapping views of the present, and the last 50 years offers a useful, absolute chronology for the present. The document also discusses the relationship between the notion of contemporaneity, methods that archaeology deploys to document our world, and an experience that we might recognize as “American.” The archaeology of the contemporary American experience is a developing field that has the potential to contribute significantly to the archaeology of contemporary race and gender.

It’s… meh. I would have to do a good bit of retroactive editing to make this work, but it was the best abstract that I could muster from any of the standard (and free!) AI summarizing bots available right now.

Another tool produced something that was damn near jibberish:

As the excavator brought to the surface dirty and damaged Atari game cartridges, it was painful to contemplate the relationship between the human costs of the global economy and artifacts of my childhood in this abrupt juxtaposition of my private past and our contemporary present (Wheeler 2014). The value that New Orleans residents put on patina parallels in some way that the value that collectors put on the stench associated with the dirty and broken Atari cartridges excavated from a New Mexico landfill. Transported from the patinated disaster site of post-Katrina Orleans to the boom-time contingency of North Dakota`s Bakken, the reuse of these trailers reflects a quintessentially modern landscape shaped by the flow of people, capital, and fossil fuels. Despite their different contexts, the archaeology of patina in New Orleans and the contemporary Bakken oil boom represent opportunities to interrogate the experiences of both American capitalism and global climate change. The archaeology of undocumented migration in the Sonoran Desert offers a distinctly American window to the tragic experience of transnational migration perpetrated by ponderous persistence of the modern nation-state. Archaeological approaches to the contemporary world not only serve to document ephemerality of the present, but also reveal the hidden and the overlooked alongside the visible, material features that define the contemporary American experience. The archaeology of the contemporary world, however, is a comparatively young field, especially in an American context, and because it…

The shortcomings of these tool got me thinking a bit about both limited some of this technology remains for even one of the most basic (and universally loathed) tasks in academic writing: abstract preparation.

It also got me thinking about how how readable my text would be to our new AI overlords and whether its resistance to simple summary is a feature or a bug.

Music Monday: Some Third Stream

Lately, I’ve been diving deeper into my my music collection to find music that captures my mood. I’ve also been fussing some with my stereo and swapped out my vacuum tube amplifier for a newer and honestly lovely Audio by Van Alstine “Single End Transistor” control amplifier. This has nudged me to listen to some different tracks over the last few weeks.

As a result, I’ve started to think a bit more about third stream jazz. This may be because it’s cool (literally, in a musical sense, and in the simpler sense that I like it), but also maybe because this year is George Russell’s centennial (the composer, not the F1 driver). I can’t really define Third Stream Jazz other than so mutter something about the influence of Classical music and some German sounding names.

I do appreciate thought some of the great examples of this genre. Most of these probably spin in people’s collections, but I’ll share three that I’ve been enjoying lately.

The first is The Gary McFarland Orchestra featuring Bill Evans (1963). Tragically, the full album doesn’t appear to be on Youtube! So I’ll share the track “Night Images” with is lovely conversation between McFarland on vibes and Evans on piano.

And here’s “Tree Patterns”: 

I’ve also been enjoying some Modern Jazz Quartet, in particular, their trio of mid-1950s releases: Concorde (1955), Django (1956), and Fontessa (1956) whose title track, I’ll post below: 

And as a little bonus: 

Finally, especially as we approach Holy Week, I’d be remiss not to include “Saeta” from Miles Davis’s iconic Sketches of Spain (1960):

As a bonus, I’ve noticed that some people are counting Floating Points Promises (feat. Pharoah Sanders) (2021). as a modern contribution to the Third Stream. Since I very much enjoy this album and it appears in its entirety on the Youtube, it seems silly not to add it to my Music Monday: 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Once spring break is over, the semester begins to gain momentum on its own. Deadlines come more quickly, student questions come with a bit more urgency, and summer plans seem to have just a bit more energy to them. 

While we’re still buried under a foot of snow, the late afternoon puddles are starting to get bigger and the dry roads remind us that by the end of April, we might be able to see some grass.

This time next week, we’ll be talking about opening day in baseball. This weekend, though, is about basketball with the NCAA tournament getting to the business end of things and the Sixers headed out West. I’m going to pass on the Benevidez-Plant PPV this weekend. There are too many good fights scheduled for the next month without having to pay for this one. I am excited about the NASCAR Cup race in COTA in Texas though where former F1 champ Jenson Button, will make his Cup debut, and Kimi Räikkönen will return for an encore. That should add some buzz to the weekend’s festivities.

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Not the Next Book: Recent Advances in Pseudoarchaeology

I’m just about done the book project that I’ve been toiling on since before the pandemic, and I’m recovering from a mild case of burn out. I’ve started to get the itch to think not about not the next book, but the book after that. (The next book has to be finishing the publication of our excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus). 

Anyway, to keep me motivated to do anything and not to descend the ominous spiral of burn out once again, I have to think about what’s next. Here’s my current next idea and its origin story. 

A few years ago, I started a project on Sun Ra and pseudoarchaeology called “Not All Ancient Aliens.” I had this idea that it might be a good fit for Near Eastern Archaeology but the editor didn’t really think that it worked there. Since then, I spun the literature review off as a review essay in North Dakota Quarterly and the main paper just kind of sat in a folder on my laptop. A chat with my buddy Kostis Kourelis convinced me that this paper could every easily become a paper on time in pseudoarchaeology and unpack a bit what non-pseudoarchaeologists could learn from the way in which other modern traditions think about time.

The next chapter would be about space and it just so happens that I have another article rejected by Near Eastern Archaeology moldering in a folder on my laptop. This paper thought a bit about space and consider how the concept of Babylon had become unmoored from its historical location and may be following the flows of oil around the world. You can read a draft of that here. This would be the second chapter.

The final chapter is a bit more nebulous right now, but I have this idea that I could maybe wrangle some of my various writings on Philip K. Dick into a chapter on pseudoarchaeology and the future. I’m still sketching out how this might work, but the plan might be to use his writing (and perhaps the writing of Samuel Delany) to talk about how things can embody futures lost in the past. This would allow us to use pseudoarchaeology as a more than just a whipping boy to demonstrate how racists use problematic rhetorical strategies, unsystematic augmentation, academic mimicry, and other problematic approaches to attempt to breath new life into long rejected (or never accepted) arguments.

The goals of this book are threefold.  

First, I want to encourage people to take pseudoarchaeology more seriously as a way of thinking about time and space and the foreclosed futures. This isn’t just to be contrarian (although that’s part of it), but to remind archaeologists that our disciplinary anxieties are as likely to produce the kind of blinders that makes it hard to discern the character of the supermodern world. If nothing else, it contributes to the ongoing conversation about how we represent a past that is useful for our vanishing present. 

Second, I have this vague idea that archaeologists might benefit from reading more broadly and approaching their work — at least sometimes — in a more playful manner and seeing in some of the more opaque and confusing work in the past a sense of hope and perhaps even joy at seeing the world in unconventional ways. There’s something about the relentlessness of hope, joy, and play that can disarm even the most blustering polemicists. 

Finally, I want to produce something more speculative. I wonder whether University of Minnesota Press’s Forerunner Series might be a destination for this book. If I understand its remit, it is to promote books that celebrate speculative and thought-in-process scholarship. 

Citizenship Ceremony

This week, I was lucky enough to witness a US naturalization ceremony. I worried that the ceremony would fall prey to our basest, most jingoistic, tendencies and become yet another opportunity for breathless patriotism. 

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In the end, this wasn’t the case. There was some patriotism, as one might expect for the occasion: a lovely version of the national anthem, an appropriately positive message from the President, and the saying of the oath of citizenship. The presiding judge communicated a sense of joy for the occasion and celebrated the diversity of the group and their potential to contribute to their communities.

In short, it was nice. More than that, it felt authentic. Even the somewhat lackadaisical reciting of the pledge of allegiance (which felt particularly empty at a ceremony where people will be asked to recite the oath of citizenship) felt appropriately sincere (in its ambivalence).

I’m sure someone less invested in the moment (my wife was becoming a US citizen) might  see the ceremony in a more cynical way or observe how the trappings of nationalism seem somewhat obsolete (or even pernicious) in a world faced with genuinely global challenges. That said, despite the overheated rhetoric favored by the political classes, this ceremony was really … (wait for it)… pleasant and joyful.

It’s hard to believe such things are possible in our day-in-age, but apparently there is hope.

Modern and Early Modern Greek Landscapes

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been distracted and honestly a bit fried. I feel like just keeping on top of my classes and shooting the wolf closet to the sled was about all I could muster. I did, however, carve out some time to read Faidon Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s book on the archaeology (and history) of the Zagori: The Early Modern Zagori of Northwest Greece: An Interdisciplinary Archaeological Inquiry into a Montane Cultural Landscape (2023).

As a little side note: Sidestone Press does make the book available as a PDF at a really reasonable cost of $15 which is more than fair for a book that is well designed and lavishly illustrated. Some of the photographers are fantastic! More than that, you can read the book for free on their website. Check it out here

The book is sweeping and complex and represents not only Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s immersion in the local landscape, but also his familiarity with a wide range of local histories, ethnographic sources, and archival material. Through these sources he produces a new history of the region from the 15th century though the late-20th, that is attentive to both the material remains of the past as well as the recent efforts to make the region a tourist and natural heritage landmark. 

The book is good and represents another meaningful contribution to the recent wave of significant work on the Greek landscape. As per my usual practice, I’m not going to review this book, but highlight a few things that made it compelling to me:

1. Walking. One of the most striking things about Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s is his forthright attitude toward the challenges of doing fieldwork in a region that is rugged and afforested. He makes clear that most topographic and even economic knowledge of this landscape came from individuals who gained their understanding of the region on foot. To make sense of the historical landscape, then, required an appreciation of how one might engage the region on foot. Walking the landscape as a modern archaeologist offered one perspective on this historical knowledge. That said, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou made clear that this was not an appeal to a kind of ahistorical phenomenology, but rather another contributing element to a grounded understanding of region which is nothing without an appreciation of how various agents produced past and present knowledge. 

2. Economies. Among the most useful (and familiar) narrative in the book is a solid regional understanding of Zagori’s economic development. Despite the seeming isolation of the region and its tradition of local independence politically, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou shows that settlement and land use in Zagori developed in response to economic stresses   originating in provincial centers — in this case Janina — and in some cases stretching beyond the Mediterranean region itself. At the same time, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou recognized that local responses to these stresses by both the elites and the peasants who made the Zagori home. In particular, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou connects the monetization of taxes to the increased mobility of the local population and demonstrates that 19th century travelers whose remittences shaped so much of the region’s architectural and artistic flourishing, were an expression of the same forces that promoted movement from mountain villages to Ottoman çiftliks or as transhumant pastoralism.  

3. Elites. One of my favorite elements of Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s book is his discussion of the continuity among local elites. He manages to trace the status of local elites from the end of the Byzantine Despotate of Epirus through the rise of Ali Pasha in Janina (and beyond). In this context, the vaunted independence of the Zagori region appears to have less to do with the persistence of a kind of indefatigable autochthonous Orthodoxy and Hellenic culture (and long-held trope familiar to anyone who has studied the emergence of Greek nationalism) and more to do with the persistence of a class of elites whose political allegiances sought to preserve their positions of power. 

4. Local Knowledge. Moudopoulos-Athanasiou demonstrated a remarkable familiarity with local archives, interlocutors, folk stories, and histories. This is understandable, of course, because his family comes from the region and in good ethnographic fashion, he resided in the region for a long stretch of time owing to the COVID pandemic. He recognizes when local narratives have absorbed national or regional ones while at the same time finding utility in unpacking some of the more distinctive stories told by residents of the region. As a completely unprofessional aside, I found the stories in the book to be fascinating and in some cases charming!  

5. Early Modern Landscapes. As someone interested in Modern and Early Modern landscapes, Moudopoulos-Athanasiou’s book is a great case study for how to approach modern landscapes as both artifacts of the priorities of the Greek state and as palimpsest for unpacking the regional level settlement and economic concerns. His grasp of both the local situation and the larger historiography of “post-Byzantine” archaeology is Greece is really great and makes my modest efforts to contribute to the archaeology of Modern and Early Modern Greece look one sided (if harmlessly so) by comparison. 

Music Monday: New Jawn, Kendrick Scott, and the Necks

There have been a few releases this year that have found their way into my somewhat vintage era rotation and I kept meaning to do a blog post celebrate three of my favorites, but then I’d find this or that re-release and get distracted. Spring break gave me a bit of time to listen to music while doing some edits and reading.

First up is Christian McBride’s New Jawn’s Prime. It’s really nice example of straight ahead jazz with just enough swing and pop to make it feel contemporary and interesting (“Obsequious” is particularly fun and funky). McBride on bass is joined by Josh Evans on trumpet, Marcus Strickland on saxophone and bass clarinet (which I really dig), and drummer Nasheet Waits. I like the second track “Prime” in particular. It shows off McBride’s ever interesting bass lines and give the rest of the crew a chance to play a bit.

They conclude the album with some Sonny Rollins which is never a bad thing:  

The next album that’s been in rotation lately is Kendrick Scott’s Corridors. It too has a great bass player: Rueben Rogers and Walter Smith on saxophone. It has a really similar vibe with Rogers’ bass keeping things grounded and interesting and Smith’s saxophone is probing and soulful. 

I’ve listened to this album probably a dozen times and always something new to enjoy in it.

Finally, I’ve always enjoyed the spontaneity of recorded improvisation even if I haven’t always found the results compelling musically. The Necks’ new album Travel has gotten really good reviews even from the free jazz crowd.