Archaeology, Punk and Drunk

Yesterday was a big day for various alternative archaeologies (for lack of a better term). Andrew Reinhard premiered his Drunk Archaeology podcast and Josh Wheeler’s story appeared on Harpers webpage on the punk archaeologist involvement in the Atari excavation this spring. Andrew Reinhard was the inspiration and organizational force behind both of these things, and his energy and enthusiasm for exploring the edges of the profession is inspiring and thought provoking. 

In the Harpers’ piece I was called the soul of the punk archaeology movement although the author admitted that he didn’t quite understand what it was. This has become a persistent problem for punk archaeology. I spend more time attempting to convince folks that punk archaeology does not need to have a cohesive, unified philosophy, method, or approach than talking about what the intersection of something like the punk aesthetic could mean for a discipline like Mediterranean archaeology. For me, at least, punk archaeology has more to do with challenging the traditional conventions of archaeological practice both in the field and in our approach to disseminating knowledge. A conference and concert, for example, in a local watering hole in Fargo represented an unconventional way to tell stories about archaeological practice. Self-publishing either on a blog or by creating a small press (stay tuned!), represents another angle where a DIY and anti-conventional approach to the production and presentation of archaeological knowledge comes to the fore. The issue with these kind of DIY approaches is that they fit awkwardly within the current model of professionalism which depends upon a structured network of relationships (a community of practice?) to authorize new archaeological knowledge. Peer review, for example, depends upon both institutional structures and the mutual understanding of collegial rank and status (i.e. being peers).  

At the Atari excavation the punk approach to archaeology manifest as a critique of late capitalism which both colonized archaeology in the interest in the (apparently stillborn) effort to produce content for Microsoft’s X-box platform and created the object of their investigation: Atari’s E.T. video game. Like my work around workforce housing in the Bakken Oil Patch, punk archaeology attempted to position itself in a way to critique the changing nature of material, labor, and consumer culture. The archaeological aspects of both projects focused on the quickening pace of contemporary society where objects and settlements moved more quickly from objects of desire to artifacts of study. The pace of culture means that archaeology as a discipline must engage an ambiguous body of material that is flowing at an alarming rate from objects in use in everyday life to archaeological artifacts. 

Punk archaeology looks to blur lines at the edges of the discipline. In some ways, this is good. It opens up our discipline to think about new ways of doing things, which range from new approaches and methods to new ideological commitments and new definitions of disciplinary limits.

On the other hand, professional archaeology and academia in general worked to democratize the production of knowledge. It is a bit concerning that punk rock music, despite its flirtation with gender bending and androgyny, and to some extent punk archaeology is a movement (can I really call it that?) that shares this aggressive, masculine encoding. More than that, punk had strong roots in a white, suburban subculture and often rejected middle or even upper class values while at the same time romanticizing a kind of lost urbanism in decades characterized by white flight and disintegration of traditional cities. As much as academic professionalism remains committed to a commodified and industrial model of knowledge production, it had the useful side-effect of  breaking down some the gender, racial, and economic barriers that had made academia a bastion of white, male, upper class privilege. On its best days, punk archaeology seeks to critique the professionalization of the academy (and the contemporary rise of the post-industrial assessocracy) while preserving the gains that this process has made.  

Andrew Reinhard’s Drunk Archaeology goes even further along the lines of blurring professional boundaries. If the DIY of punk archaeology rejects many of the institutional character of knowledge production, Drunk Archaeology challenges professional standards even further. As E.P. Thompson and others have argued intoxication has a long tradition as a form of resistance. The most famous manifestation of this is St. Monday when workers would be absent on Monday as they recovered from weekend indulgences. Drunk Archaeology continues in this tradition by injecting alcohol into an rollicking conversation about the site of Pompeii with Eric Poehler and Francesca Tronchin. The podcast shares many of the characteristics of punk archaeology (and punk rock) with its raw language, challenged production standards, and intellectual irreverence. Reinhard manages to use the drunkenness of the conversation to good effect punctuating the conversation with the clinking of ice in refilled glasses and swirly audio effects as three participants romp through the history and archaeology of Pompeii. The podcast is good despite its rough production and oddly unscripted chat. Think of as the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams

It ask shares with Punk Archaeology a bit of ambivalence in its critique. Is the drunkenness meant to be simply playful? Or is it meant as a hat tip to traditions of the booze-soaked, hyper-masculine, preprofessional archaeologist who follows a honed intuition rather than methodology or formal training to discover the past. Could it even be a subtle wink to the parallels between archaeology and the long, complex, and damaging history of alcohol in a colonial context?  

I think I’d prefer to read (listen?) to the podcast as a more complex critique which uses alcohol as a way to challenge the overwhelming force of rationality, methodology, and scientism in our discipline and instead emphasizes the passion, mystique, and … fun, of archaeological work. As much as I am skeptical of the scientific, dry-as-dust, method driven archaeology of the 21st century, I can also see the risks in this statement (just as I am aware of the risks in my punk archaeology). None of us really want to return to the days of informal, ribald, and chaotic colonialist archaeology any more than we’d want Johnny Thunders excavating a sensitive context. But we both would like our discipline to be more aware of how professional limits shape the kind of knowledge we produce. 

Go check them both out and decide for yourself.

One Comment

  1. Thanks, Bill for your (as ever) thoughtful review. As a participant in the Drunk Archaeology podcast, your critique / contextualization only adds to my anxiety about whether doing this in the first place was a good idea professionally, but it does so by offering a means to further understand that experience. On the other hand, listening to the podcast and hearing the directness (vulgarity?) of the language and lack of restraint on certain topics (passion?) makes me worry about the inauthenticity of so much ‘professional’ academic speech.

    I comfort myself, over coffee and a penitent morning of academic-professional writing, with the phrase: “all things in moderation, including moderation.”


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