Some thoughts on the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting

I spent most of last week at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting. For me, the conference is a series of meetings with various committees ranging from the program committee for the conference to the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute‘s board of trustees gathering. In between, I usually have a chance to catch a paper or even an entire panel over the course of the three day conference.

The meetings, panels, and papers never fail to stimulate my thinking and remind me why I got into the business of archaeology, digital publishing, and ancient history over the past two decades.

Here are some quick thoughts:

1. Digital Narratives and Archaeology. There were numerous opportunities to think about how the digital technology mediates archaeological knowledge. As I’ve intimated on this blog, I have a particularly intriguing collaborative project that is brewing which will incorporated 3D images, archaeological data, and conventional catalogue entries and interpretive narratives into a hybrid publication that explores the convergence of the paper-based codex and the dynamic world of linked data on the semantic web. The codex implies a certain unity and linearity of engagement while linked data protocols allow for nearly infinite opportunities to combine, deconstruct, and remix archaeological evidence on a highly granular scale. Balancing the work of archaeologists as interpreters of the past and as producers of reusable and empirical data has both practical and philosophical implications as Giorgio Buccellati has suggested in his recent book, A Critique of Archaeological Reason (2017).

Comments at a series of meetings this past week also demonstrated that the convergence of media types – the newsletter, the blog, the webpage, the journal article, the book – has complicated the construction of communication strategies for various organizations. At one meeting, several folks went to great length to distinguish between a blog and a webpage emphasizing not only the functional difference, but also the difference in purpose. The webpage was more stable and, perhaps, persistent, and the blog was designed to encourage conversation. While this might be a useful editorial distinction, for the reader the line between a page and a blog is blurry at best. Moreover, the function of a static, traditional webpage in a world of search-engine optimization is bound to the need to produce new content and encourage linking simply to remain visible. In other words, the platform, content, narrative, and visibility (or even simple existence) are so deeply intertwined that even digitally defined genres have melted away into the granular world of the web.

2. Roman Countryside. I was intrigued by Andrew McCarthy and colleagues paper on their rural site of Prastio-Mesorotsos in western Cyprus. Like many sites on the island, they have struggled to understand the absences of Roman period material particularly from the 2nd-4th centuries AD. They demonstrated using Aoristic analysis (of a sort) that there is reason to expect this material based on the chronological structure of their Hellenistic and Later Roman assemblages, but telltale forms remain elusive. I couldn’t help but think about Sue Alcock’s argument for Roman Greece, offered so many years ago in Graecia Capta, that suggested that under Roman rule settlement in Greece became more nucleated and this accounted for the relative invisibility of Roman material in the countryside. I also recalled David Pettegrew’s important contribution on the variable diagnosticity of material from the Late Roman, Roman, and Hellenistic periods. He argued that the visibility of certain periods has biased our reading of hidden landscapes by making periods with less diagnostic material – for example undecorated amphora sherds – comparatively less visible in the countryside. While it remains impossible to construct functional or highly nuanced arguments without artifacts, it does remind us that the absence of evidence – or the invisibility of evidence – is not the evidence for absence. McCarthy and his colleagues are making strides to reconcile the absence of evidence with larger patterns of settlement change on the island.

3. Globalization and Cyprus. Jody Gordon’s paper looked at Roman Cyprus as an example of globalization that offered insights for understanding the world today. His paper elegantly brought together the works of contemporary theorists of globalization and ancient critiques of Cyprus while never straying too far from the ancient evidence on Cyprus. I’m usually predisposed to be skeptical of efforts to apply modern constructs like globalization to the ancient world, but I found Gordon’s paper particularly compelling both as a way to think about Cyprus during the Roman and Late Roman periods, as well as a way to use the study of antiquity to understand in more subtle ways contemporary challenges. Scholars have historically seen issues of cultural hybridity, precarity, and even the acceleration of time through the compression of space (a distinct inversion of David Harvey’s famous dictum of time-space compression) as distinctly modern (or even industrial) challenges. Gordon explores the possibility of recognizing similar challenges in the pre-modern world as a way to critique the idea that some groups are “left behind” by globalization and to inspire approaches to the past like the “archaeology of care” that challenge the linearity (and in some ways moralistic inevitability) of certain “historical” processes.

4. Non-Places. The hotel was convenient and completely and utterly banal. Every room and every corridor looked like other corridors and rooms at other conferences in other hotels in other cities. What brought this home to me at the ASOR annual meeting is that participants frequently struggled to remember papers, conversations, and events from other meetings or struggled to place papers or events at a particular meeting.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about memory lately. Over the last few years, I’ve struggled to remember things, names, people, and even ideas. The concept of memory has also been particularly significant in mass media with books like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the new Pixar movie Coco, focusing on memory and the act of remembering as crucial to the very existence of an individual. As the modern world becomes more and more populated with non-places that meet the demand for familiarity in a world driven by convenience, seamlessness, and need to accommodate the ever increasing speed of capital, technology, and life, the anxiety about memory makes sense. The past is racing toward us at a faster and faster pace and encroaching more and more on the fragile window of the present. An “Irish” pub, a chain Mexican restaurant, a faux New England bar, did little to create a sense of time or place at the meeting. By the time I left, my own memories of the conference had already begun to slip into the placelessness and timelessness of the modern past.

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