Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: A Revised Draft

Over the last week or so, I’ve continued to iterate on the paper that I’ll deliver at EAAs next week. Like all conference papers (or at least all of my conference papers), it’s a bit too much of everything and not enough of what matters resulting in it being a pile of “meh.”

That being said, the complete draft that I pushed out a couple weeks ago was also too long and diffuse. So while its flaws should still be apparent (and my apologies to all those who provided comments and tried to convince me to make it better), but it will at least be a bit more focused.


Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

William Caraher
University of North Dakota

Rough Draft of Paper for the European Archaeological Association Meeting
Barcelona, Spain
September 4, 2018


My paper today is an effort to identify some of my own anxiety related to transhumanism in archaeology by thinking about technology in archaeology in an expansive historical way. This will, of course, run the risk of making my generalizations easy enough to dismiss with examples from actual field practices or implementation. My hope is that exceptions to my vision of the future of archaeology will provide reasons for optimism grounded in an advanced state of critical engagement with the way that digital tools are shaping the discipline. At the same time, I do think that long trajectory of digital practices in archaeology (and in our transhuman culture) remains unclear as folks like Jeremey Huggett have recognized (Huggett, Reilly, Lock 2018).

The title of this paper reflects some of my earlier efforts think broadly about archaeological practice. In 2014, I published a collection of reflections on “punk archaeology” (Caraher et al. 2014) which offered a view of archaeology grounded in radical and performative inclusivity, and, this formed some of the backdrop for a pair of articles on slow archaeology (2015, 2016) that juxtaposed the “slow movement” with a particular strand of scholarship that celebrated the increases in efficiency, accuracy, and precision associated with digital field practices. While both efforts have received substantive and thoughtful critiques that have demonstrated the limits to these analogies (archaeology is LIKE punk or LIKE the slow movement; see Richardson 2016; Graham 2017), I still hope that they offer some useful perspectives on the relationship between how archaeology produces the past in the present.

My interest today is to trace some of the threads proposed in these earlier efforts while focusing in particular on how digital tools and techniques intersect with new approaches to archaeological knowledge and disciplinary practices. In particular, I’d like to try to argue that our interest in efficiency in archaeological work has contributed to a view of archaeological practice that draws upon logistics as a model for a distributed knowledge making.

Ellul and Illich

My point of departure for this paper are two mid-century Christian anarchists, Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul, who wrote critically on the rise of modern institutions and technology. Without over simplifying and eliding their different perspectives, both men saw the shift toward modern practices as profoundly disruptive to traditional values which supported embodied practices that shaped human communities.

Ellul’s is perhaps the more intriguing for any consideration of archaeological practice. He suggested that the rise of rationality and technology and its distinctive form of “technique” severed the careful attention of the individual from work itself (Ellul 1964). In its place emerged practices which, in the modern era, followed the logic of efficiency. While scholars have noted the ambiguities and limits to Ellul’s definition of efficiency (Wha-Chul Son 2013), his relationship between technique and efficiency anticipates recent understandings of technological agency that view human autonomy and individual choices as part of a distributed relationships between humans and their tools. The quest for efficiencies remains in Jennfier Alexander’s words, “an iconic mantra in the high-tech industries,” and a key consideration for how archaeology is organized and uses tools (Alexander 2008).

Ivan Illich shared many of Ellul’s concerns and proposed that modernity, technology, and the state disrupted the conviviality that existed in the premodern world and among premodern societies (Illich 1975). For Illich, conviviality represented the opposite of modern productivity (with its interest in speed and efficiency) and emphasized the free, unstructured, and creative interaction among individuals and with their environment. For Illich, like Ellul, the use of technology does not result in a society freer, but one that is increasingly bereft of the conditions that allow for creativity as the need for efficiency and speed create a kind of dominant logic in practice.

Illich’s and Ellul’s critiques of technology fit only awkwardly with much recent scholarship, of course. Efficiency itself has become increasingly regarded as a problematic term deeply embedded in practice and the coincidence of human and material agency (e.g. Shove 2017). Bruno Latour and others have demonstrated that any effort to unpack the complexity of energy in any system — social, mechanical, environmental, et c. — requires abstract acts of purification that define and separate energy and effects from their complex network of entangled relationships and practices (Latour 1993; Shove 2017, 7-8). This greater attention to the interaction between individuals and objects has provided a compelling theoretical framework for understanding the interplay of technology, tools, objects, and agency in the construction of archaeological knowledge.

On the other hand, this work has only just begun. A recent conference and publication dedicated to digital tools in field work, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future, was laced with discussions of efficiency and workflow in digital practices. Among the most widely cited and read articles from Journal of Field Archaeology is Christopher Roosevelt’s (and team) thorough presentation of the digital workflow from their project in southwest Turkey.

What remains less developed is a conversation on the impact of digital tools on the organization of archaeological practice (although see Pickering 1995; Taylor et al. 2018), the nature of archaeological skills and expertise, and issues of archaeological preservation and publication (Huggett 2017). In fact, changing views of agency have created new views of ethics in archaeological practice as well as in the social organization of discipline (e.g. Dawdy 2016). Perhaps this entangled view of the world gives the work of Illich and Ellul new relevance for archaeologist concerned with the social issue of disciplinary practice across the field.

Transhumanism and Disciplinary Practice

As the organizers of this panel know well, transhumanism offers a way to consider the interplay between the individual, technology, practice, and performance (e.g. Haraway 1984) in archaeology. It also offers a roadmap to anticipate the social and disciplinary implications of new approaches to producing archaeological knowledge. Indeed, for most of the later 20th century archaeologists have embraced methodology and seen knowledge making as an explicit relationship between particular techniques, tools, and situations. In this way, archaeological work does not end at the limits of our bodies, but extends reciprocally through technology, techniques, and social organization to create the hybrid space of archaeological knowledge making.

The dense interdependence of tools, techniques, methods, and individuals embodies a transhuman archaeology that shapes the social organization of archaeological practice. Digital technology, for example, whatever its integrative potential, relies, in part, on the industrialist and Taylorist approach of dividing complex tasks into rather more simple ones with the goal of final publication at the hands of a project director. However, unlike the relatively linear progress of Taylor’s assembly line which emphasized a rather immediate relation between the body of the worker and the object of work, digital practices embrace efficiency through the distributed logic of logistics (Cowen 2014). These transhuman networks depend both upon distributed assemblages of tools and technologies as well as interchangeable media which allows for information to move and be aggregated in different ways. As such, digital practices continue the fragmented work of the assembly line but emphasize new efficiencies by facilitating the distribution of work, knowledge, and information in non-linear ways. Streamlining the archaeological “workflow” mitigates differences in experience and expertise among specialists and facilitates new combinations of archaeological information.

As one example, Open Context provides a platform for the highly granular publication of archaeological data, which allows archaeologists to establish a stable URI for each artifact. The allows for artifact (or strata or survey units or photographs) to be shared, linked, combined, and remixed in different ways, and also highlights the pressures and potential to fracture and fragment digital data. Another example, various crowd-sourced research projects (e.g. Sarah Parcak work) have likewise shown how digital tools allows for fragmented bits of knowledge to be marshaled to address complex archaeological problems. Digital mediation in these contexts allow for the collecting of archaeological information from an unstructured cluster of participants. Obviously the use of crowdsourcing, where a large community acts as a kind of mechanical turk, is not ideal for all forms of archaeological knowledge making, but where is it applicable, it does present a distinct form of deskilling. With the increasing mobility of archaeological information, ease of integrating diverse collaborators, and granularity of specialization, the social impact of these kinds of systems on the disciple remains unclear.

I’m tempted to see that shift in the organization of archaeological practice from one based on the assembly line to one grounded in logistics parallels contemporary thinking in archaeological ontologies that see relations and assemblages as producing meaning. Just as an approach to archaeology grounded in assemblages of individuals, objects, places, and pasts, has produced new and hybridized ways of understanding the past in the present, so the distributed character of digital practices and their reliance on computer algorithm or software introduces distinctive logic of practice to field work and interpretation.


If Ellul and Illich saw the technological revolution of the 20th century as fundamentally disruptive to the creative instincts and autonomy of individuals because it falsely privileged speed and efficiency as the foundations for a better world, then this same strain of reasoning in archaeological practice should give us pause. My conclusion is a call for an “archaeology of care” that take cues from Illich and Ellul in considering how interaction between tools, individuals, practices, and methods shaped our discipline in both intentional and unintentional ways.

I’ve been concerned by a process that Gary Hall has called “uberfication,” which he has applied to changes in higher education in the United States (Hall 2016). The Uberfied University uses data to map the most efficient connections between the skills of the individual instructors and needs of individual students at scale. To be clear, this is a dystopian vision rather than an actual plan, but it reflects larger trends on public and private sectors which see the analysis of data as the key to efficiency within complex systems. It likewise relies on the ability not only to link individual agents to particular needs but also on the network’s ability to shape the behavior of agents to satisfy the various needs across the entire network. The data, in this arrangement, is not passive, but an active participant in the shaping the entire assemblage. It’s logistics.

The issue, of course, isn’t the existence of the assemblage; in fact, our recognition of the assemblage is what makes both its existence and its critique possible. What causes me anxiety is that the tools and techniques available to the transhuman archaeologist are as embedded in archaeological practices as they are in the logic of capital, efficiency, and modernity. The performative context of archaeological practice, whether “punk” or otherwise, offers the space for critical engagement. “Slow archaeology,” despite its grounding in privilege, nevertheless offers an ideal archaeological future that challenges the expectations of efficiency. Finally, an “archaeology of care” is my term for an approach to the discipline that embraces human consequences of both our methods and the pasts that they create.

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