Three Thoughts from the Western Argolid Regional Project

I know it’s cliche, but archaeology provides a good context for thinking. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten some good thinking done. In fact, my colleagues, The Directors of the project, have been extremely patient interlocutors this summer. I am convinced that an important part of archaeology remains the close and continuous intellectual and social contact between participants. In fact, I write about that very thing in the context of digital archaeological practice here.

Since it’s the middle of the middle week of the survey season on the Western Argolid Regional Project, and thanks to “a non-serious, fatigue-related, incident”, I’ve been stranded in my lux-u-ary apartment for the last two day, I’ve scrawled down a few thoughts about a few things:

1. Team Leaders. One of my arguments in favor of a return to a “slow archaeology” is that we have created an increasingly atomic view of the archaeological process. Our dependence on forms, digital data collection, and methodology to produce archaeological knowledge has inhibited our ability as archaeologists to understand and represent the complex interrelationships between objects, context, architecture, and landscape. In short, our tendency to parse archaeological knowledge ever more finely in the field has created a practice that runs counter to the integrative goals of the discipline. 

My fear is that archaeologists no long have a complete grasp of the archaeological universe, but only their little part of it. Our graduate student team leaders this summer have undermined my argument by demonstrating the ability to move fairly easily from the detailed documentation of a unit to the more expansive view of the landscape necessary for mapping units. Moreover, these team leaders not only have field experience, but also have experience with GIS and databases. Their training has prepared them to do more than simply collect data carefully in the field, but also to analyze it using the increasingly robust tools available to archaeologists. This shift in training is remarkable and suggests that the computer lab has become as much a place of analysis as the field.

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2. Internet Objects. One of my favorite finds so far this season was a very modern, mould-made, ceramic roof tile with the website of the manufacturer’s on it. Since it is not permitted to publish a possibly ancient artifact in a digital format prior to the end of the season, I can’t show you the artifact here, but I can offer a link to its digital object which has already been published. (Director’s Note: Actually Bill could show it, if he had a photo because it’s not an antiquity.) It is easy, then, to go and check out the location of production, the specifications of the tile, and even the cost. More interesting than that: the tile is a physical icon for a virtual object. This relationship between the tile and the website, however, is only temporary. When the website disappears, changes location, or is updated, the link between the particular tile and the virtual object is changed or broken.

 There is significant talk these days about the internet of things where physical objects and virtual objects exist side-by-side. The roof tile might be one of the humblest examples of these interconnections, but one that nevertheless demonstrates the archaeological complexities of the internet as a mediating entity between objects separated by vast distances and connected by unstable, mutable links.

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3. Performing Archaeology and the Rhetoric of Fieldwork. We’ve had some interesting conversations at the dinner table and in the field about how archaeological field work employs performative positions grounded in traditions of masculinity. The “work hard, play hard” attitude, for example, which characterized an earlier, almost pre-professional model of archaeological field work clearly drew upon premodern labor practices. Experience in the field produced through apprenticeships to senior archaeologists counted as much as training and the ability to conform to social expectations of field practice.

There is a need to perform field work in such a way that conforms to social expectations that exist outside of formal methodological assumptions. For example, despite almost a half century of discussions of archaeological sampling and the limits to archaeological definitions of space and the landscape, there continues to be pressure for full coverage survey and grueling excavation schedules that produce more data than will ever be published in a project director’s lifetime. The “mo’ fieldwork, mo’ knowledge” paradigm holds its appeal to archaeologists, in part, because the discipline remains ambivalent toward modern practices even as it embraces technology and “scientific” practices in the field.

 So at the same time that the discipline is modernizing field practices and defining the landscape or trench as a series of tick boxes, numbers, and fields on a form, archaeology continues to have this patina of premodern practices that rely a largely hidden set of social expectations about doing archaeology “the right way”. It should come as little surprise that an “old boys club” are responsible for much of this unwritten pressure that still shapes certain aspects of the discipline. I have a longer post of this in the slow cooker where I try to work out some of the issues, but I think I need a few more conversations with my conspirators here on WARP to get the argument worked out.

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