Atlanta and ASOR 2015

I had a great week attending the 2015 American Schools of Oriental Research conference in Atlanta. The panels that I managed to attend were interesting and crowded, the committees to which I was obliged were productive, and impromptu meetings with friends, colleagues, and strangers were fun and useful.

I even learned some things. So in the interest in bringing order to a complicated few days, here’s a little list summarizing my encounter with the 2015 ASOR meeting: 

1. Bathrooms. I don’t, generally, spend much time reflecting on bathroom design, but at a conference fueled by coffee and endless pitchers of water in every room, regular visits to the bathroom punctuated my day at steady intervals. The men’s room that I visited most regularly had a small vestibule (around 3 m in length) between the door to the hallway and the door to the bathroom proper. Through this second door was a doglegged passage of 7-8 m in length featuring a bank of four or five sinks. The standard bathroom fixtures were set further into the bathroom around a partition wall.

This arrangement may sound typical, but it means that a visitor to the facilities moves through about 10 m of passage between entering the space from the external hallway and encountering the most important features of the bathroom. This space was genuinely liminal for the visitor and preyed directly upon our common, human anxieties associated with moving from the public space of the hallway to the gender-defined space of the bathroom. Is this really the men’s room? Am I in the wrong place? 10 meters is a significant distance to travel “betwixt and between,” and made every trip to the facilities involve some design-induced angst.

2. Nice Cars and Traffic. This was my first time in Atlanta outside of an unplanned night in an airport hotel after some botched travel arrangements a few years back. A few friends with Georgia roots tried to explain to me the urban landscape of the city which seemed to me to be an East Coast version of West Coast urban sprawl and truly a fitting anchor for Gibson’s Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis

The one thing that Atlanta is famous for is traffic (and streets named Peachtree). I was enchanted (see below) by the bustling traffic of Atlanta’s byways and trip to from Buckhead to the Cabbagetown neighborhood for dinner took us on vibrant and traffic-filled highways through Downtown and Midtown.

IMG 4085

The spectacular array of exotic and imported cars on the roads of Buckhead and on Atlanta’s highways reminded me that I truly live in “Pontiac and Plymouth Country (TM)” and created a moving montage of social and economic display. While eating lunch at a little burger place, I watched no fewer than three Bentleys roll by and was shocked to realize that Mercedes only sells S-Class cars to Atlanta residents.

3. ASOR and CAARI and The Digital. There were sustained and productive conversations about “The Digital” both on the ASOR committee on publications and at the board of trustees meeting of CAARI (the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute). The former is embracing the need to at least experiment with open-access digital publishing and linked data and the latter is starting to think more critically about its web site as more than just a billboard for the institutes existence. I’m increasingly optimistic that Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town will appear next year as a digital, fully linked, revised edition and Pyla-Koutsopetria II: Excavations at an Ancient Coastal Town will be born as a linked digital book in 2017. 

As for CAARI, there’s much work to do, but we’ve made some progress. Moving the CAARI site from a hand-coded page to a WordPress template would make updating the site easier and facilitate links with social media. The conversations at the trustees meeting also suggested that people are increasingly interested in using the website for… something. It may be that the website emerges as a place to solicit contributions or to market scholarship opportunities or even to publish old photographs of Cyprus. It’s clear that the board is not quite sure how to align the web with CAARI’s broader mission.

As I sat there listening to the conversation (and the many generational protests), I started to think that CAARI could use the web to disseminate scholarship perhaps in conjunction with the re-opening of the expanded library. A digital occasional paper series modeled on the ISAW Papers series might anchor the CAARI web presence in a familiar medium – scholarly publication, celebrate the benefit of the new library by linking CAARI with academic production, and provide a new outlet for publications on Cyprus now that the Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus is on sabbatical.

The key thing, to my mind, is to revamp the website with a strategy (and goals) in mind. We have work to do!

4. Slow Archaeology. I was thrilled to hear the term “slow archaeology” appear in several papers at ASOR and even more thrilled to realize that some of these mentions were not directed at my work but indicative of parallel work with the same ideas. Eric Kansa’s work on “slow data” distinguishes the deliberate and careful work of publishing, linking, and using published archaeological data from the compliance based “data dump” and suggests that a “slow” approach to data publishing will both yield far more important results and require a change in attitudes among archaeologists, institutions, and funding agencies.

Independent of my work, Ömür Harmansah has explored the intersection of archaeology and development, neoliberalism, and the modern academy to suggest that, today, almost all archaeology is salvage archaeology pushed by an array of pressures inherent to late capitalism. As an antidote to this trend, he has proposed approaches that embrace an intentional engagement with complex landscapes including a kind of “slow survey” that attempts to resist practices associated with the commodification of archaeological space, objects, and heritage in the name of documentation.

I’m exited to explore more of his ideas with him and think there is real potential for a clearly-defined slow archaeology to offer substantive critique to the discipline.  

5. Objects and Enchantment. I participated in a panel on object biography where folks used the word “enchantment” more than I’ve ever encountered at an academic meeting. The papers were good and generally well-received, although I detected a consistent skepticism that object biography represents a  productive way forward for understanding of the place of objects within the broader archaeological project.

My paper was met with skepticism including a comment that my approach to archaeology (and digital artifacts) would cause children to go running from the discipline whereas the opportunity to handle an excavated object would lead to enchantment. This may be the case, although I suspect children and students these days have a greater willingness to be enchanted by digital objects than our generation does.

Despite that critique, my time at the ASOR annual meeting was enchanting, exhausting, and though provoking. I’m looking forward to next year and following up some of the conversations that I had over the course of the meeting.  

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