Slow Archaeology and Privilege

This weekend, during a useful conversation about slow data and slow archaeology, Shawn Graham tweeted that he felt that slow data still evoked privilege and that “to be slow depends on a whole bunch of people hustling as fast as they can.”

Shawn’s a smart and thoughtful guy, and this conversation about speed in archaeology and privilege in archaeological practice is an important one. In fact, the more I thought about Shawn’s critique, the more I realized various facets of slow as privilege have appeared in conversations that I’ve had with any number of colleagues and collaborators over the past few years. In light of that that, I thought that maybe I should write up a blog post on it, in the hope that folks respond, clarify, and nuance what we mean when we talk about slow practices in archaeology. This isn’t meant to challenge Shawn’s critique, but to offer a counter point in the hope of starting a conversation.

I tend to see slow archaeology on a continuum.

1. Slow as Privilege. On the one end of this continuum, the slow movement represents a conscious rejection of “the cult of speed” that is so often associated with the modern world and our use of technology. The close relationship between technology and claims to efficiency is a hallmark of our accelerating present. There is no doubt, of course, that speed has democratized the flow of information. We now have access to more books, articles, and datasets than ever before. Big data (or at least large data) has solved problems (and allowed us to photograph a black hole!). Technology has streamlined archaeology and allowed field projects to produce more accurate, nuanced, and precise datasets and made it possible to share trenches, survey units, artifacts, assemblages, and buildings with collaborators almost instantly. These are good an important things and I have benefited directly from all of these changes in practice. 

Slow archaeology, of course, can present a challenge both to how we produce archaeological information and the kind of archaeological information that we produce. For a recent small project, I kept notes in field notebook rather than on my laptop. These notes are harder to share with other people, more difficult to organize into standardize datasets, and resist efforts to render them interoperable with other forms of information collected by the project. For example, its hard to link my notes to photographs or video taken by the project or with spatial data. To make this happen, someone (probably me) will have to hustle and produce a concordance and at very least scan the notebook pages (and probably transcribe them). In effect, my decision to use the archaic practice of a handwritten field notebook has made my data less accessible and less useful to analysis at scale. This was an unapologetic act of privilege; it was my project, my research questions, and those shaped my field practices. 

At the same time, I do recognize that my notes now represent the best record of two buildings on campus that were destroyed. I have effectively gained possession of these building, their material history, and at least part of their memory by my slow practices. Whatever benefit that I gained by taking notes by hand, it was only a benefit to me (and indirectly to my students with whom I shared my observations verbally during our work). In some sense, my insistence on slow practice abused the opportunities of access and the luxury of time to conduct field work. In the end, whatever I learned by slowing down and taking handwritten notes came at a cost. To balance the cost of this process with the benefits to the community, I’ll have to make my notes not only available but accessible. This is slow archaeology as privilege. 

2. Slow as Process. I regularly tell my students that the “perfect is the enemy of the good” by which I mean that you can spend a good bit of time trying to perfect an assignment to very little benefit in terms of grades or learning. After all, there’s nothing higher than an “A” and time and energy are finite resources. 

For me, slow work often involves writing and reading. A few times a year, I read something really hard. It might be a novel or a book that draws on a complex and densely articulated theoretical apparatus. I’m not good at “the theory” nor am I good at reading and understanding fiction.

I do it anyway and it is a sign of privilege.

A book that takes me a month to read and digest means that three or four other books aren’t read. Time that I spend with fiction and poetry – especially in my capacity as the editor of North Dakota Quarterly –  is time that I’m not spending with archaeological literature not to mention writing and analyzing archaeological data. 

I’m not suggesting that all data analysis is somehow “fast” or less demanding intellectually or practically, but like writing and reading, some texts and tasks are inherently faster than others. Writing a dense and thoughtful and challenging argument should take more time than a formulaic site report. This is not a value judgement. The former could be an ephemeral meditation on the theory du jour, whereas a careful site report might produce new knowledge for generations.  A slow laborious argument might, in fact, be gibberish and reading a complicated and demanding text may produce very little real knowledge. Slow work entails a risk and a commitment to processes that are not easily mediated through technology. Slow writing and reading is painful. As such, we always need to question whether we should read a book or article, apply a theory, or commit to writing a demanding or complex sentence, paragraph, or text. 

A classic example of this kind of slow work comes in the form of analyzing legacy projects. Reading notebooks, building stratigraphic and chronological relationships, and extracting meaning from tangled and often problematic bodies of data is a kind of slow practice. While there is no guarantee that a new excavation or survey will early produce significant new knowledge, a project starting with a blank slate presents a better opportunity to implement more efficient ways to acquire, organize, and analyze archaeological information. Other people’s data introduces other people’s problems.    

To be clear, fast archaeology, fast reading, and fast writing are not necessarily easier or more efficient, but they are grounded in practices that recognize efficiency as a desirable outcome of the process that produce new archaeological knowledge as a result. Spending hours checking formatting on a bibliography might be oddly satisfying, but it only rarely transforms the meaning or value of a text (although see here…). Spinning dense and theoretical texts, reading novels and critical works, and working through legacy data is slow practice, but, the cost benefit for this kind of work remains a bit hard to assess. It is hard to deny that there is something satisfying from recovering data from a challenging past excavation, understanding the complexities of theory, or composing a clever argument, but the value of this work for the larger project of archaeology is less clear. The pursuit of the personally perfect might well alienate the greater good. At the same time, it’s hard to deny the value of wading through hard prose or legacy data.

3. Slow as Value. If slow practices do have value outside the realm of personal privilege, it most certainly exists as a way to recognize the value of work in communities that do not have our level of access to technology and accelerated modernity. At a conference a few years ago, a participant quipped that if you didn’t have the resources to afford digital tools – like iPad and the like – for the field, perhaps you don’t have the resources to conduct good archaeology. To be clear, the participant made this comment off the cuff to stimulate debate rather than as a pointed critique.

At the same time, it is now a common requirement in most grants that projects have data plans. This requirements make clear that digital tools and techniques are increasingly baked into the very fabric of archaeology. Digital practices, however, cost money. Producing and archiving data costs money. And, digital approaches are frequently embedded in particularly methodological and theoretical perspectives. These methods and theories, however, are no more universal than the resources necessary to support their implementation. A small salvage project might use paper notebooks. Forms of indigenous archaeology might employ practices that resist efficient, public, and streamlined recording (e.g. the culturally sensitive practices associated with the excavation of human remains). These practices are not intentionally “slow” in the way that I used a paper notebook to document buildings on UND’s campus, but they share with slow a kind of resistance to accelerated modern practices.

Of course, Shawn is right that extracting data from these kinds of projects will require more hustle, but this kind of slow practice doesn’t map as easily onto the landscape of privilege. In fact, we should recognize that digital tools and their complicity in creating our modern desire for efficiency, interoperability, and transparency represent privilege as well in many part of the world. A slow archaeology can contribute to a decolonial archaeology, indigenous archaeology, and an anti-modern archaeology that expands the access to sophisticated tools for documenting our material past that are not bound up in the commodified, capitalist, and colonial practices of contemporary technology. 

~

To be completely honest, my slow practices drift back and forth across this continuum (as my recent article in the EJA probably demonstrates; go here for a preprint). I can be slow because I’m a guy, in a tenured position, who is reasonably well compensates. I don’t often work in front of the bulldozer or need to top off my CV to keep my career afloat. I can indulge in bogging down (as may many slow and stalled projects demonstrate), I can destroy the adequate or even good (enough) in a flailing pursuit of the impossible. I often indulge in process without immediate regard for product.

That being said, I also think that slow practices remain valuable. They allow us to engage difficult texts, articulate complex ideas, and reclaim discarded or marginal information. They also push us to recognize the intersectionality of privilege. What might be a concession to an accelerating world in one situation, might be an aspirational or even inappropriate use of technology in another. Slow archaeology provides a space to critique our own practices and to consider their limits.  

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