Toward a Slow Archaeology (Part 1)

It’s pretty rare that someone asks me to write on a particular topic, but it happened this past week. After my talk at the Digital Archaeological Practice Workshop, a number of people nudged me to discuss “slow archaeology” in a bit more detail. The truth is, I coined that term on the fly, and, judging from a quick search on Googles, it seems to be a neologism. I got the idea because I happened to be reading an article on “slow pedagogy” on my flight to western Massachusetts. I’m going to blog on it today because I just finished reading (for the 40th time) E.P. Thompson’s brilliant “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” from volume 38 (1967) of Past and Present (pdf).

So here are my thoughts on “slow archaeology” (in the spirit of E.P. Thompson):

It is commonplace that the years between 1950 and 1970 saw within the field of archaeology, important changes in how archaeological evidence was collected and understood. In subsequent decades, technological change accelerated changes in practice. In the Mediterranean, this coincided with new, less permissive attitudes toward permitting foreign projects, unfavorable (for archaeologists!) exchange rates, and decreased funding for so-called “big digs.” All of these trends have slowly transformed how archaeologists work in the field. Some of the changes are good. For example, more systematic data collection has allowed us to produce quantitative arguments that have produced patterns revealing new cultural and economic relationship. These changes have also encouraged the development of intensive pedestrian survey and other less intensive, but nevertheless regional studies that rely on the collection and organization of archaeological information. Conceiving of archaeological evidence as data has also made it easier for projects to speak to each other and to forge, fragile, but real generalizations about the ancient Mediterranean as a cultural, economic, and political unit.

1. New Archaeology. The emergence of New Archaeology in the 1950s encouraged the use of the scientific method produce archaeological knowledge. While scientific practices had long validated archaeological practices, with the New Archaeology, the attendant rigor in data collection and interpretation supported the development of methods and a methodological discourse that privileged quantitative analysis (although not exclusively) as the way to bridge the gap between object and the human behaviors constituent of culture. This is an oversimplification, of course (after all this is a blog!), but my description of the New Archaeology summarizes a strain in this movement that informed intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean with its emphasis on diachronic, regional level developments.

2. Technology. Technology accelerated the impact of New Archaeology on field practices. The ability of computers to facilitate and normalize the collection of large data sets, to analyze them, and to plot these spatially has spurred a massive wave of data driven archaeological projects. Technology has streamlined both analysis and data collection in the field and has subtly shifted the object of study from actual objects, places, and spaces to data. (I do realize that archaeological notebooks and non-normalized, open field field recording is a kind of data, but archaeologists have only recently started to analyze these kinds of unstructured datasets in a sophisticated way.) Technology has produced field work, then, as data collection and tools ranging from DTMs, GPS units, iPads, and even the lowly clicker, serve to normalize how we describe the archaeological environment to allow for more efficient analysis.

Technology has also contributed to the deskilling of the field archaeologist by tending toward automated and more atomized tasks designed to produce bits of information suitable for efficient analysis. This kind of archaeological Taylorism fit into larger scientific movements in the field (see point 1) and was mediated by technological developments. 

3. Permits, Finances, and the Demise of the Big Dig. In my relatively short career in filed archaeology, I have witnessed the gradual restricting of permits granted to foreign projects across the Eastern Mediterranean. Recent developments in Greece and Turkey, in particular, have limited the length of field seasons and projects, their geographical extent, and even the number of participants. This has coincided with Greece’s adoption of the Euro and less favorable exchange rates for foreign (i.e. North American) projects which further limited the extent of field work. The days of the Big Dig which lengthy field seasons, nearly perpetual permission to excavate, and massive permanent infrastructure are over. As a result, the level of site specific expertise has begun to decline with archaeologists no longer being able to work at a single site or even region for decades. 

Permit restriction and economic changes has required more efficient time in the field at the very moment that technology and archaeological Taylorism made it possible to increase the efficiency of data collection. If the Big Dig represented unlimited time and open ended inquiry (largely grounded in practices that predate the New Archaeology movement), then the late 20th and 21st century archaeological project involves an efficiency provide through rigorous adherence to a prescribed method.

4. Methodology. The rise in methodology, then, has accompanied the rise in technology, the decline in site specific knowledge, and the emergence of New Archaeology as an influential paradigm for knowledge production. Methodology is the conversation about archaeological methods as the key locus of authority in knowledge production. As part of methodology, there is a greater scrutiny of the relationship between field procedure and method. This attention has focused, in part, in efficiency, the practical limits of various field practices, and the process whereby systematic observation becomes archaeological knowledge. In short, a scientific archaeology required an orderly process that ensured that all parts of the practice of archaeological knowledge production are transparent and (to the extent possible) replicable. 

5. Professional Archaeology. Finally, I can feel my colleagues in the professional CRM/archaeology business both nodding their head, but also muttering “time is money.” The growth of professional archaeology and the need to collect and analyze data quickly to ensure the preservation of the cultural heritage and responsible development. The alliance between archaeology and development as well as the so-called heritage industry only emphasizes the increasing pressures on archaeology to adopt the practices of scientific industry in how they produce knowledge. 

Efficiency, “time is money,” technology, and methodology, have all contributed to the gradual acceleration of archaeological practices in the field. A return to a “slow archaeology” requires a critical engagement with these developments, and I’ll make an effort at that later this week. 

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