Archaeology and Craft in the 21st Century

It feels very odd to say that a conversation on Twitter spurred me to think a bit more about archaeology as craft. Yesterday a group of archaeologists, mainly in the U.K., and seemingly spurred by Colleen Morgan who began a discussion on the decline of the craft of excavation spurred in part by a rereading of C. Tilley’s well-known article on archaeology as theater. Tilley speaks out against the growing (in 1989) fixation with gathering information in archaeology that privileges excavation (particularly salvage excavations) and manifests itself in the dreadfully scientific site report. The published reports in excavation tend to reduce the complexity of excavations and conform to what Tilley sees as a kind of “strident professionalism” that limits access to meaningful readings of the past. Nowhere is this more evident, at least for Tilley, than in the practice of excavation focused solely on a research question articulated by an archaeologist. Instead, Tilley suggests that archaeologists should entertain the possibility of less scientific excavation to open the process to the voices and hands of the community as a way to generate a truly multi-vocal articulation of the past. Here’s a link to Sarah May’s take on the article.

Tilley’s argument is short, dense, and not entirely convincing, at least in the 21st century. He does, however, identify some of the key problems with scientific excavation characteristic of disciplinary archaeology. The disciplinary tendency to expect (or at least to present) linear progress from data collection to final publication embeds professional archaeological knowledge within a tradition of industrial production that is one with the basic structure of the modern American university. This is the point of departure for many of my observations on archaeology as craft.

At the same time that I was eavesdropping on this Twitter conversation and reacquainting myself with Tilley’s article, I was also reading a pre-publication draft of an article by Sara Perry. I won’t spoil the fun before its 2014 publication, but the title is “Crafting Knowledge with (Digital) Visual Media in Archaeology.” Set aside Collen Morgan’s work, it has reminded me that there are compelling efforts to bridge the gap between digital tools and craft practice. (My efforts were NOT compelling in any way.)

Anyway, these conversations have spurred me to make three observation.

1. Slow. As with everything on this blog, I can’t help but make this conversation about my own work (although Shawn Graham who brought me into the Twitter conversation indulged me as well). My interest in Slow Archaeology has less to do with the pace of archaeological work (either excavation or survey) and more to do with creating an alternative to the kind of method-driven, industrial practices that have emerged as a component of disciplinary archaeology. If methodology promotes a transparent and – as much as possible – linear relationship between field procedures, analysis, and interpretation, then Slow Archaeology advocation complicating this process. Tilley offers one way to complicate the mechanical (if not mechanistic), method driven disciplinary archaeology by making room for practitioners to think about archaeological work outside of atomistic data recovery guided by hypothesis testing. 

Survey archaeology is particularly suitable to this kind of practice because it is largely non-destructive. Walking across a landscape without a notebook or a camera might seem like an effete indulgence of 21st century Western intellectuals or even a lingering expression of colonial dominance (and these critiques are consistent with views of the Slow movement more generally). On the other hand, this practice would promote – even just for a time – a less-structured engagement with the archaeological landscape.

2. Embodied Knowledge. Sara Perry’s article reminded me to read Pamela Smith’s The Body of the Artisan (Chicago 2004). It has been on my “to read” list for about three years, but I think that I need to move toward a more sophisticated understanding of the role the body plays in knowledge production. I was particularly interested this summer in the posture of our team leaders and field walkers. Team leaders consistently presented hunched shoulders over a form on the clipboard and field walkers carry an inclined head toward the ground scanning a narrow swath of the surface to either side of the path.

P1070932

To me, this posture makes clear the shift away from viewing the landscape as a unified space and toward a view of the archaeological universe that privileges distinct bits of data, recorded diligently, and the projected on computer generated maps for analysis. Over the course of our field season on the Western Argolid Regional Project, I encouraged team leaders and students to tilt their heads up from time to time to take in the larger landscape, but the pressures of covering as much ground as possible and documenting the presence of individual sherds on the surface of the ground.

We can contrast that with, for example, the posture that archaeologists have when illustrating a feature. In the photo below, we can see how our two archaeologists are literally part of the object they are illustrating (an Ottoman bridge). Their posture and position (although not necessary when they’re smiling for the camera!) reflects a different engagement with the archaeological object.

P1080331

 

3. Craft and Archaeology in the 21st Century. All of this thinking about craft and archaeology (and a small, but compelling body of recent scholarship) has me thinking that I should run another series of guest blog posts on the topic. That our conversations have begun in Twitter is perfect for this kind of digitally mediated conversation. My growing experience moving text from the blog to more traditional paginated medium (see two soon to appear books based on the Punk Archaeology blog (and conference) and the series of posts on 3D Modeling Mediterranean Archaeology) is itself a manifestation of craft practice and becoming familiar with the tools and technologies required to move documents through the process of publication. 

So, here’s a draft proposal:

Archaeologists have become increasingly interested in the intersection between the growing number of new digital tools, methodologies, and field procedures, and the longstanding traditions of archaeological expertise and practice. This interest reflects both optimism for a more highly visible, transparent, and democratic archaeology, but also a concern for the skills and knowledge that will be lost as archaeology fully embraces its place as a (post)industrial discipline. This conversation is not distinct to archaeology, of course, with scholars across the humanities and social sciences reflecting on the potential of “craft” as a meaningful and familiar way to articulate what we may be losing.

Who would be interested in contributing to this kind of forum? I volunteer my blog to host it and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota to push out a quick publication. 

2 Comments

  1. Hi, really interesting post, always nice to see things develop. I wonder if you’d be interested in something taking the opposite position, and questioning whether craft is the appropriate stance to take when considering material from eras of mass production?

    Reply

    1. Sarah,

      YES. That’s a great. I think the idea that craft should be a model for understanding archaeological work is not unproblematic on any number of grounds…

      Bill

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s