Some Punk Archaeology

I was pretty excited to read Lorna-Jane Richardson’s recent critique of punk archaeology in World Archaeology. Not only was it a thoughtful engagement with the ideas at the core of punk archaeology, but with viability and sustainability of punk archaeology as an approach.

She and I probably disagree more than we agree on whether a punk approach to archaeology has any benefit, but ultimately we recognize similar problems within the discipline of archaeology (and society) and articulate – ultimately – similar solutions. She argued that the most salient aspects of punk archaeology already exist in various forms of participatory practice in archaeology and rebranding them under the term “punk archaeology” amounts to little more than a “navel-gazing need for sub-cultural self-identification.” 

There are few places where I sensed that we might have been talking past each other a bit, and as a very preliminary response to her article, I offer the following observations:

1. Punk Archaeology in Context. One thing that didn’t come through in her response to punk archaeology was that whatever academic or theoretical formulations existed for punk archaeology, the project had a very personal element to it. The participants – Andrew Reinhard, Kostis Kourelis and the various other contributors to the volume – had thought about the overlap of archaeological work and punk music. In this sense, the project was, indeed, solipcistic (at worst) and personal (at best). Maybe we were thinking about archaeology wrong, but it still was how were were thinking about it.

Richardson also seems to have overlooked that many of the key participants in punk archaeology worked in Mediterranean archaeology which, as a rule, occupies a more straight-laced and conservative place in World Archaeology. While participatory practice has occurred in Mediterranean archaeology (see, for example, some of Yannis Hamilakis’s work), it is hardly part of the dominant discourse or method. In fact, some practices that are widely accepted on the global stage, like intensive pedestrian survey and even historical archaeology (Kourelis is a Byzantinist; Caraher a survey archaeologist), have only in the 21st century become part of the mainstream of Mediterranean archaeology (which isn’t to say that there weren’t many significant intensive survey projects or a healthy Byzantine archaeology in the Mediterranean). As a result, our need for “sub cultural identification” was, indeed, “naval gazing,” but also the result of a disciplinary culture that tended to marginalize certain methods, periods, and practices. This coincidence with our interest in punk rock created the basis for our exploration of “punk archaeology.” Whatever the larger methodological and “untheorized” foundations that our association with punk offered, it was, at the end of the day, a reflection of our personal and disciplinary experiences.    

2. Punk, Slow, and Craft. I am skeptical of her claim that “punk archaeology” places “the agenda, content and practice of participatory and collaborative projects in the hands of the non-professionals” and views DIY practices as part of an “an outright rejection of the structures of archaeological authority and knowledge gatekeeping.” While Richardson was clearly concerned with potential impact of this approach on heritage archaeology in the U.K. and professional practice, I’d like to imagine a punk archaeology that does not see the professional/non-professional dichotomy as the primary nexus in which DIY practices occur.

I like to think that I developed this aspect of punk archaeology a bit more thoroughly in my exploration of craft and “slow archaeology.” Whatever the flaws in my thinking about slow practices in archaeology (and people have been quick to point them out), I think archaeological practice even on the professional level is a mixture of archaeological methods incubated within a disciplinary context and tightly controlled as standards, and practices that are not distinctly archaeological but nevertheless shape the kind of knowledge we produce. For example, stratigraphic excavation is a professional, disciplinary method, and punk archaeology is not calling for a disruptive, DIY, experimental approach to this foundational method (just as punk rock music, with some exceptions, maintained the basic structures of songs). On the other hand, punk archaeology is interested in challenging and playing with certain strands of archaeological practice like our growing obsession with 3D models and remote sensing, and injecting the spirit of low-fi and craft into those approaches to documenting the past. These strands of archaeological practice tend to be advanced in name of efficiency, accuracy, precision, and technology in a professional context that is both relatively uncritical and reflective of priorities that are not universal within the discipline. In this context, DIY approaches challenge the technological solutionism within professional practices. In some ways, these DIY (or to use Ivan Illich’s useful term: more convivial) practices draw not only unprofessional traditions, but pre-professional traditions within archaeology and remind us that no matter how much we “streamline workflows” a part of archaeology will “never be modern.” This space between professional standards, innovation, pre-professional practices, and the pressures of modernity (and super modernity) leave plenty of room for DIY and other ad hoc practices that connect professional archaeology with both the public and its own preprofessional past.       

3. Punk Publishing. I was a bit bothered by Richardson’s characterization of punk publishing efforts. While her critiques of the web are fair, and I might even understand her fears of archiving, I will strongly contend that digital publishing has transformed the way in which knowledge is communicated and whether this rises to the level of democratization or not, I’m not entirely sure, but the internet, for all of its liabilities, has transformed the world.

At the same time, there are standards for publishing on the web, archaeologists recognize the potential for ephemera to shape the discipline, and archival practices have emerged over the last decade to ensure that digital artifacts, like the book Punk Archaeology, are preserved. This is an old complaint that seems to equate short-term, spontaneous, and low-budget punk archaeology projects with naive approaches to producing useful archaeological analysis. 

Shoestring budget projects have a growing body of resources available to archive their digital and non-digital material. In fact, I’d argue that shoe-string budget projects like my Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (annual budget of about $0) or the North Dakota Man Camp Project (<$10,000) have played a key role in documenting ephemeral and marginal practices that tend to fall through the cracks of traditional archaeology. In other words, digital tools allow for the documentation and preservation of our ephemeral recent past in ways that analogue tools do not. Punk archaeology embraces this opportunity and the challenges associated with critically engaging these new ways of working that are aware of both the growing reach of “large tech companies” and their role in making our digital heritage legible and accessible. Readers of Richardson’s article will likely find the free download of Punk Archaeology via a Google search or at the Internet Archive, but Richardson’s article is behind a paywall controlled by a large publishing house.

4. Performing Punk Digitally. Richardson’s most troubling critique is that punk archaeology and its participatory ethos is a slippery slope toward reduced funding to archaeological projects and the exploitation of unpaid or inexperienced labor. This is a legitimate concern, but not one unique to punk archaeology, I’d suggest. First, as I have argued above, archaeology continues to have an apprenticeship system where students and junior scholars work with more senior scholars to acquire field skills and regional knowledge. This is less than idea, but it has been part of the discipline (and academia) for nearly a century. Academic credit, publications, and field knowledge cannot and do not pay the rent, keep lights on, or put food on the table, and this is a problem that archaeology – not just punk archaeology – must acknowledge. Second, the problem of unpaid work extend to include the messy world of academic publishing where scholars give uncompensated hours and days of their time in peer review to journals published by for-profit publishers.

For its part, punk archaeology, including the book that coined the phrase, served as a critique of academic practices by being published by and for academics and circulated for free. While I would agree that punk archaeology remains under theorized, I rankle a bit at the assertion that “The punk movement does not seem to have properly thought through the potential political consequences and ethics of unpaid work…” I think punk archaeology has engaged some of those issues and this is demonstrated in the very book that Richardson cited in her article and the work of institutions like The Digital Press to promote archaeological work in a collaborative and collective way.

While punk archaeology has not offered a definitive critique of the exploitative practices present in archaeology and academia more generally, punk practice within archaeology is hardly consistent with what Richardson’s statement: “So, while these projects may in fact be self-reliant and self-funding to an extent, and may also be the exact type of grassroots projects that ‘non-profits, charity organizations, and large foundations don’t want to be bothered with’ (Reinhard, pers. comm..), they are not advancing the understanding of archaeological knowledge within communities or providing open access to information.”

5. Punk Archaeology in Context II. While Richardson and I might differ in how we approach the problem of archaeology in the age of austerity, I think the great value of this article is as a reflection on the complexities facing any approach to archaeology or the humanities in a time of diminished funding.

Punk archaeology offers on approach to the problem through encouraging collaboration and collective action among archaeologists, by supporting and developing new models of archaeological publication (through projects like The Digital Press), by offering critiques of the relationship between archaeological practice and technology (through “slow archaeology”), and by recognizing the role of archaeological work in engaging pressing issues in our communities. The approach that punk archaeology has adopted does not solve the fundamental problem of austerity or the nefarious impact of neoliberal ideologies on academia, of course. I tend to see these pressures as being more than just the disinterested forces present in a fundamentally neutral economic regime, but rather a system designed, at least in part, to undermine values incubated in the humanities and archaeology. Punk archaeology, then, represents a kind of resistance to this larger project rather than a way to accommodate its impact.

Richardson’s willingness to dismiss punk archaeology as a largely uncritical, austerity-influenced, “navel-gazing need for sub-cultural self-identification” is a bummer because I suspect that we’re actually on the same side.

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