Toward a Slow Archaeology (Part 2)

Yesterday, I started to shape an argument for a “slow archaeology” by grounding it in a series of changes in archaeological practice over the second half of the 20th century. Go read that post here for some background on the idea.

Today, I wanted to think a bit about what a slow archaeology might look like. At some later point this month, I’ll have to think more carefully about how to articulate the benefits of a slow archaeology to the discipline. I have argued elsewhere, of course, that slow archaeology mitigates the deskilling of archaeological field practices and serves as a holistic counterpoint to our increasingly granular approach to archaeological data collection. By taking time in the field to appreciate the complexity of the entire archaeological record, we make explicit our understanding of archaeological knowledge as the interplay of landscape, process, and practice.

In the field, a slow archaeology could feature any number of practices that push participants in a project to stop and take stock of their physical surroundings, their actions, and their social and professional situation. These practices do not necessarily involve abandoning granular data collection techniques, but would carve out space both within the discipline and in the field day to understand the interplay of disciplinary ways of seeing and material objects.

The following recommendations are not meant to be unique or to identify gaps within current archaeological practices. Indeed, many of the recommendations below derive from my own field experiences and the values of archaeologists with whom I have worked. 

1. Teach Technique Before Technology. At a recent conference, one of the undergraduate participants insisted that archaeology programs could do more to prepare students to use technology in the field. While technology has certainly come to play a key role in archaeological data collection, I suspect her mentors spent more time talking about field techniques and concepts than the various mediating technologies. An emphasis on technique grounds practice in disciplinary knowledge whereas an emphasis on technology offers the short-term promise of a transferable skill (often of immediate value to an employer) but erodes the ability to recognize the continuum of knowledge production that begins with procedure, continues through methods and analysis, and culminates in interpretation. To be fair, most of the better programs and field schools emphasize technique over technologies.

2. Reflection. Recently, scholars have come to appreciate the value of reflection in the classroom and have begun to recommend that students (and, indeed, faculty!) slow down and engage an object thoughtfully and deliberately. We attempted to encourage these moments of reflection during our field season the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project by encouraging students and staff alike to write blog posts from time to time. These public journal entries served the dual purpose of communicating the experience of a field project to a wider public and encouraging some reflection during the hectic field season. Not all staff members (or students) took advantage of this opportunity to slow down and think, but those who did began the provided a public account of the recursive experiences of working and living together on an archaeological process.    

3. Conversation. At the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, our field director, Tom Tartaron, introduced an idea called “continuous consultation mode” (CCM for short). His idea derived from a permit restriction that prevented this project from collecting ceramics from the field. As a result our ceramicists analyzed finds in the field and were available to discuss their analysis more or less on the spot with field team members and project directors. This process stood in contrast to a more traditional approach in survey archaeology where the field teams collect material and return it to a lab or storeroom where it would be studied by ceramicists either as it came out of the field or, more commonly, in later seasons. Whether CCM produce tangible gains in how we collected data in the survey is open to debate, but it did ensure that our preliminary discussion of the landscape occurred in the landscape. In fact, we often had debates later about whether perceived changes in artifact density in the field corresponded to actual changes in artifact density as produced by the GIS.

Another space where a “slow archaeology” became apparent was in the evening meals. At most of my projects, we worked to encourage meals together as a field team and for staff and students to sit with one another at the end of a field day. While the stuff often had pressing responsibilities, this pause in the hectic routine gave everyone the chance to interact in a less harried and formal environment. As a field walker in the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, I learned as much from informal conversations at dinner as I did in the field.  

4. Artists. At the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project and on the North Dakota Man Camp Project we attempted to include artists on our field team whenever funding permitted. The contribution of these artists to the visual archive for these projects has been immeasurable. They also showed us how to look at our landscapes differently. This does not simply refer to the view through their camera lens, but extends to the process of viewing the landscape. Watching Joe Patrow or Ryan Stander move through the landscape and position themselves to observe our work encouraged me to become more aware of how archaeological practice located our bodies in the field. As importantly, it reminded me how the pace of archaeological field work was only one frame for encountering the landscape and producing a meaningful response.

5. Description. One of the contributors to Punk Archaeology decided it would be clever to submit a handwritten manuscript. This was very punk (and a pain in the ass). He has also reflected on writing by hand (as have I) and some recent scholarship has suggested that the physical act of hand-writing engages different processes in the brain. Whether these processes are directly relevant for the production of archaeological knowledge is unclear, but handwriting does force us to slow down as we document the landscape. The same applies to drawing by hand. This practice draws us to look more closely at objects than a photograph and encourages us to be selective in the details that we include and to think critically what is important in the visual record of an object. 

As you can tell, these musings are in a preliminary stage, and I wish I could say that I have always followed these guidelines. In reality, like most archaeologists, I pushed to collect more data from the field and to create more efficient and streamlined processes. At times, I am sure I was a bit unbearable. During one of my more intense field seasons, a wise friend would remind me that “there’s always more archaeology.” 

It has taken me quite some time to understand what he was saying. Now I think slowing down, becoming more aware of practices, and taking more opportunities to see and reflect produces more archaeology than the most efficient field team.

2 Comments

  1. Bill, reading this I thought of de Certeau’s essay on Walking in the City: “It exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten.”

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  2. One of the things I have noticed with my hyper-automated data collection is that I often leave the field with more than enough data and very little understanding. I am quick to GIS, GPS, photo document profiles, datalog cores, and process artifacts, and because time is money, that’s what I do. I rarely can digest what has happened until I have moved on. This works in that it maximizes my field time, but I think it has also created a very high hurdle at the digest and publish stage. What I do write up over in CRM-land is solid data-for-compliance, but not always creative and often, I am afraid, not very useful. Thus I wonder if I am really being more productive. I know I am not alone, and I know we could point fingers and say “like at the XYZ survey.”

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