What is Punk Archaeology?

Over the last few weeks, Punk Archaeology, both the book and the movement, have received some good press. This weekend, in fact, it was included in a feature length article on the Spanish Huffington Post which grouped the punk archaeology a group of punk scientists like Greg Gaffin from the band Bad Religion who earned a Ph.D. in biology at Cornell. This was flattering.

El Huffington Post última hora noticias y opinión en español

Later this morning, I’m chatting with a local reporter from the Grand Forks Herald and while I’ll stress that we’re really big in Spain (that video makes me very uncomfortable) right now, I still feel like I’ll need to define punk archaeology somehow. In my previous engagements with the media, this has been a bit of stumbling block for me. Typically, I tell the story of how Kostis Kourelis and I had some conversations in 2007 or 2008 about how quite a few Mediterranean archaeologists have punk rock associations. Kostis, I think, then compiled a list of punk archaeologists and maybe posted it on his blog (although I can’t find it) or maybe he posted it on Facebook. At some point after the famous list appeared, we created the Punk Archaeology blog and began writing short essays that explored the intersection between punk rock and archaeology. Most of my essays looked at archaeological methods and how punk and archaeology shared a do-it-yourself ethic, a kind of irreverence toward received tradition, and an interest in abandoned spaces. Kostis’s contributions tend to focus on the archaeology of music or the biographical and intellectual links between archaeologists and avant garde. After a few years of blogging, Aaron Barth and Andrew Reinhard took on the mantel of punk archaeology and the former organized a conference in Fargo and the latter shepherded a book focused on the blog posts and conference through the publication process. This is a great way to describe the origins of a band, but not a very effective way to describe what punk archaeology actually is.

So, I’m sitting here in my decidedly unpunk kitchen this morning, drinking coffee, and trying to figure out how to respond to the reporter who will invariably ask “what is punk archaeology?”

I am sorely tempted to say that it is an effort to disrupt the traditional structures, institutions, and practices of archaeology, but the word “disrupt” has been appropriated by capitalism, and I’m not sure that we’ve been very disruptive. In fact, I am skeptical whether punk rock music was disruptive. The bands sometimes were, of course, with their stage antics, rowdy lyrics, and mercurial fame, but the music itself was pretty conservative. Most of it derived from pop music and, with a few exceptions, had a verse-chorus-verse structure. In fact, punk pioneers like Lou Reed made money writing endearing pop ditties before embarking on the more ambitious project of the Velvet Underground. The tendency of punk rockers to cover pop standards, albeit in unconventional ways, and to gravitate toward folks and blues music (e.g. the Knitters, Jack White) reinforces the strongly conservative strains in punk rock. Maybe that punk archaeology originated in Mediterranean archaeology, which has long been a rather traditional branch of the discipline of archaeology, accounts for the conservative character of punk archaeology (at least in form). But even if I accepted this take on the punk archaeology, I’m not convinced that it is ideal for journalistic consumption.

Maybe it’s better to rely on the simple explanation that the punk archaeology movement uses punk rock music as a tool to think about archaeology in different, more playful ways. For example, both punk rock and archaeology offer unconventional, yet familiar, ways of providing social criticism of the present. As I have been thinking a good bit about my almost completed tourist guide to the Bakken and how has parallels to a punk rock approach to the North Dakota landscape. It takes a familiar genre of work – the tourist guide – and applies it to an unconventional place and set of circumstances – the modern oil patch. The message of the guide will be ambiguous and situated between a post-ironic earnestness and a space for the critical distancing conducive to both contemplation and escape.

I’ve also thought about the Atari excavations in New Mexico and wondered whether encountering and presenting the buried games as archaeological artifacts likewise had the effect of providing some distance from the familiar and opening these objects up to new forms of critique. 

So maybe I need to emphasize how punk archaeology is a tool that encourages us to approach the familiar in unconventional ways. It complements conventional archaeology which likewise provides a distance for critically understanding objects from the past, but in most cases these objects are already unfamiliar to the modern viewer. Maybe I need to emphasize how punk archaeology makes the familiar and everyday unfamiliar.

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