Slow Archaeology, Publishing, and Collaboration

Yesterday, Brett Ommen released, as a kind of epilogue, a podcast made up of recordings of Joel Jonientz, him, me, and Mike Wittgraf. In my little section of the podcast, I talk about what collaboration meant to a guy like Joel as an artist who was willing to work with folks in the humanities.

At the same time, I’ve been working on revising an updated version of “Slow Archaeology” article before I head to the Mediterranean this summer. In my revisions to that paper, I try to put a bit more emphasis on the social organization of archaeological work and how modern archaeological practices, including the growing use of digital tools, has tended to reinforce longstanding social divisions. For example, digital tools have tended to exaggerate the role of  field teams – excavator and field walkers – as data collectors capable of (and obligated to) producing detailed, “pure data” that project directors analyze later. In fact, the view of the archaeological process as fundamentally destructive has pushed archaeologists to place ever more emphasis on the efficient extraction of information from the field. In fact, at the Mobilizing the Past Conference, a comment I made about whether we were perhaps focusing too much on efficient data collection was met with a stern reminder that as archaeologists we need to collect as much information from the field as possible to compensate for our destruction of archaeological contexts. As Gavin Lucas (and others) have rightly critiqued the idea that a site can be reconstructed from the documents that archaeologists produce during excavation and that this reconstruction will somehow reveal the processes that produced the site. Lucas offers the useful observation that this view of excavation frames it as the opposite of construction. Construction begins with plans and ends with a finished building. Excavation starts with a completed context and finishes with a plan view. The archaeological builders of these backward buildings tend to occupy the same role in archaeology as manual labor does in construction. Excavators engage in the dirty, physical phase of the (de)construction process (at least in the traditional view of archaeological practice and knowledge production) and, as a result, occupy a subordinate social position to the trench supervisor (the contractor) and the project director (perhaps the architect). To be clear, I’m not saying that I agree with this or even the idea that excavation is destructive (which implies a finality to this event rather than a stage in a continuum of formation process), but our interpretative assumptions contribute the social organization of archaeological practice. 

Slow Archaeology emphasizes field practices as the proper space for archaeological interpretation. Collecting data is not distinct from analysis and interpretation and any practice that segregates data collection from analysis in the name of efficient and exhaustive recording is guilty of the neglecting the primary context for archaeological knowledge production: the trowel’s edge or the survey unit. 

Now, back to Joel. Joel was willing to collaborate with anyone who could pique his imagination, but he was totally unwilling to subordinate his role in the creative process. So, if he created a poster for your event, he became part of the event. He viewed collaboration as an intensely democratic process and while he was willing to accept critique, he demanded that his views carry weight and that everyone around the table have a voice. 

In many ways, I’ve tried to carry on his perspectives in the development of our Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. I’ve taken to calling it a cooperative publisher which breaks down the barriers between the author, the editor, and publisher. Rather than the author standing apart as content creator and the rest of the publishing process being regarded as subordinate (and maybe even a bit subservient) to the process of authoring content. This not only reinforces a social division between the intellectual work of writing and the (traditionally) manual work of layout and typesetting, but also supports a system that uses this increasingly outmoded division to limit the circulation of intellectual work and to extract value from its production. This is not to say that traditional publishers and editors do not add value to scholarly work, but rather to ask whether this division of academic labor is worth the cost.

Joel saw collaboration as a continuum of practices rather than a division. As a result, the value of collaboration was not generated by those who engaged in one part of the process negotiating their cut of the final results from the those who engaged in another part. Collaboration obligates and entitles every participant (and certainly someone as skilled and assertive as Joel) to both their share and to the final product. This, of course, requires a tremendous amount of trust and a willingness compromise. I hope that I can continue to develop the willingness to trust my collaborators and to find ways to compromise for the greater good. 

One Comment

  1. vincentoreilly April 22, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    For what its worth if anything. When I Was at UND in the 1950s I wrote and edited and lay up etc a little Newman Foundation newsletter. It would have been a horror were it not for the typesetter at the UND press. Later as a newsman I’d not have survived a week were it not for the expertise of Skippy our teletypist who caught my spelling errors, abominable sentence structure, and outright errors. They were the unsung heroes behind the scenes.


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