Slow and Ethnoarchaeology

Somehow I missed this recent article on ethnoarchaeology as slow science in World Archaeology. Jerimy J. Cunningham and Scott MacEachern argue that the ethnoarchaeology offers a counterweight to fast science driven by big data. This contributes to some of my recent ideas on slow archaeology.

The clever argument that Cunningham and MacEachern make is that ethnoarchaeology can work to create a space for archaeological thinking outside of dominant narrative of modernity (as well as capitalism). For most working archaeologists, this includes our desire to fragment knowledge, promote efficiency, and develop typologies. The rise of big data – and data-driven archaeology – fits well within this trajectory as it promotes streamlined acquisition of bits of information and the granularity and fluidity to support its large scale aggregation. I am not necessarily suggesting that big data and data-driven archaeology is bad, but that it does fit within a particular disciplinary, social, economic, and even political discourse. As the authors contend, big data is often part of a larger direction in archaeology that promotes large-scale projects, resource intensive computing and analytical practices, costly archiving protocols, and exacerbates the divide between a small number of highly-resourced projects who work to set global standards and a large number of poorly provisioned projects that either conform or exist at the margins of the discipline. To my mind, this reflects the intersection of contemporary, institutional archaeology, as well as long-standing historical practices dating from the origins of the discipline. 

I have argued for a “slow archaeology” as a way to critique this trajectory and to promote a sense of disciplinary self awareness (and I’ve been fortunate for some of my ideas to be advanced and developed by others who are far smarter than I am!). Cunningham and MacEachern align themselves with the slow science movement – particular scholars like Lisa Alleva, Olivier Gosselin, and Isabelle Stengers – and argue that the ethnoarchaeology offers a way to escape the modern pressure and trajectory of archaeological practices and processes by studying explicitly the complexity of traditional practices and modern lifeways. This allows us to grasp paths in the modern world that are not as neatly shaped by the pressures of capital, industrial production, and progress, but hold fast to craft practices, for example, as a means to communicate certain values that lack expression or are marginalized in the market.

Returning then to the idea that archaeology traces the trajectory of modernity, ethnoarchaeology offers a space to critique the impact of modern thinking not by denying its impact, but by understanding how it shapes what we do. In this way ethnoarchaeology, slow science, and slow archaeology share a concern even if they deviate in terms of methods.


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