Conversations with David Pettegrew

A week worth of conversations with David Pettegrew is pretty challenging and invigorating stuff. 

Part of the great value of doing field work is the conversations during downtimes. David and I have been immersed in working on the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology for the last two years, but we’ve been chatting about other projects – including our next book project, An Introduction to Early Christian Archaeology.

This summer we chatted about a potential collaboration between his brilliant Digital Harrisburg project and maybe a new tourist guide and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This led to a productive conversation about the potential of digital and public humanities. I suggested that the limited time that faculty have to dedicate to public humanities projects may well parallel the limited time that consumers of public humanities projects have to engage them. (In my experience, faculty are not particularly voracious consumers of public humanities projects.) 

We also discussed the strange tension between public humanities as opportunities for student learning, but also as having to compete with myriad distractions of modern life from video games and movies to work, sports, kids, and other media. A significant challenge for the historian or public humanist, who often works constantly between an academic and public audience, is finding ways to present what we know and do in a way that competes with professionally generated media. We’re underfunded amateurs who are often expected to bring students into projects that are intended to compete for attention with highly paid professionals capable of slick production, with access to marketing teams, skilled programers and developers, and massive media markets. 

At the same time, we celebrated the potential of “punk projects” with low costs, modest goals, and do-it-yourself practices. As we contemplate the demise of the National Endowment for the Humanities we began to imagine a world where competition for grants could give way to greater impulse for collaboration and the often large, lavish (but not always even in humanities terms) grants and projects funded by the NEH would be replaced by denser networks of collaboration among humanists. To be clear, I don’t think that more organic and DIY practices could replace the sustained and systematic investment and leadership of the NEH, but I do wonder whether there are positive, alternative ways to think about how the humanities works.

Invariably, David and I also talked about intensive pedestrian survey archaeology. We reflected a bit on the rise and decline of methodology as a central feature of the discourse of intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean. I offered the observation that with the growing acceptance of intensive survey among Mediterranean archaeologist has blunted the apologetic tone so prevalent in survey literature in the immediate aftermath of the Second Wave survey projects. It’s hard to know for certain if this lull is real or just the maturation of the conversation which results in fewer blockbuster methods articles and more incremental change. At the same time, it is clear that the way that we talk about intensive survey practice and methods has become more confident and perhaps less critical and reflexive.

Finally, we’ve talked about our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria. We have a small, but tightly controlled body of data from three(plus) seasons of excavation and five worth of study that now almost ready for publication. The most interesting conversation focused on our careful and exhaustive (and exhausting) analysis of the plow zone assemblage from the site of Pyla-Vigla. This assemblage could be compared profitably to the assemblage produced during intensive pedestrian survey to offer a small, but well-controlled case study for the relationship between the surface, plow zone, and subsurface remains.

We usually circle back to our work at the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey and various ways to prepare a “final publication” that at least leads researchers to our data (when it’s fully published) if not to a particular set of conclusions or interpretations. 

Most conversations with David conclude with the refrain that we have too many projects and too many top priorities, but I think we both agree that this is better than being bored!

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