Writing a Book and Slow Archaeology

One of the many downsides to the COVID pandemic is that I’ve had too much free time to thing. As a result, I’ve started not only to come up with new projects, but I’ve also come to second guess these same projects.

For example, this past week on a couple run and walks, I concocted a new book project, which I’ll unpack below, but I also started to wonder whether the world needs another book these days. As a tenured faculty member who is well and truly mid-career, I’ve struggled a bit to come to terms with my changing responsibilities both to my field and my colleagues.

We’re trained, of course, to read, write, and teach. In fact, most of us derive a good bit of pleasure from this routine. At the same time, most of us have become increasingly aware that reading, writing, and teaching are just one part of our larger social responsibilities as faculty members. We’re increasingly being called upon to give our frenetic keyboards a rest and listen. We’re becoming aware that when we speak, teach, write, and publish, we’re not just doing our jobs, but we’re also creating conditions in which other voices and perspectives will be less likely to be heard, read, and advanced. This is especially true as we move from early to mid-career status and our acquired skills and training often generate a kind of momentum of its own which allows us to produce scholarship, mould a classroom discussion, and acquire grants, publication opportunities, and audiences that often far exceed the value of our ideas. This creates a kind of obligation on our part to make sure what we’re doing is meaningful and not just the product of a well-conditioned routine and to examine our energies and commitments to determine whether our efforts really do make our field and society better. 

That being said, messing around with a book idea is a far cry from writing a book, and most readers will recognize that like so many ideas that bubble up from the COVID induced isolation, this one is probably best left in the idea box

Slow Archaeology: The Book

What if I wrote a book on “slow archaeology”? In some sense, this would be the ultimate vanity project. I’d be expanding an idea that I had five years ago and explored in a few articles. I’m under no illusions that I’m the best person to do this, but I’ll also admit that the idea seems really fun.

The book would be short (<50,000 words with references) and organized into two parts following an introduction.

Introduction: Slow Archaeology: This chapter would set out the historiography of the slow movement and seek to establish the intellectual roots of the slow movement in the larger critique of modernity, efficiency, and technological acceleration. This seeks to walk a fine line between conservative nostalgia and fantasies about the past (that inform so much of the slow food movement) and the most radical critiques of contemporary technology and our post-industrial world. In many ways, this introduction will allow me to return to formulations of slow archaeology presented in past publications, to respond to some thoughtful critiques, and, frankly, walk back some of the more ideologically fraught positions that I’ve found myself occupying.

More than that, it’ll frame the book as a good faith effort to infuse the discipline — and academic archaeology, in particular — with a greater attention to social critique. Slowing down pushes us to consider how our choices of technology, our organization of work, and disciplinary practice shapes not only the kind of information that archaeology produces, but also the kind of social relations that define our field.  

Part I: Slow Archaeology as Research

Chapter 1: Slow Archaeology in the Field.

This chapter would emphasize slow practice in the field. It’ll look at the technologies that have become our constant companions from GPS units to mobile phones, digital cameras, and, increasingly, tablet computers and consider how these technologies have changed the ways we view landscapes, survey units, stratigraphy, and most importantly, the organization of archaeological work. 

This will draw on my own experience in the field in Greece and Cyprus and leverage the growing body of work that draws upon ethnographic practices and historical research to understand the organization of archaeological labor in the past and the present.

Chapter 2: Slow Archaeology and Analysis

This chapter considers how slow archaeology can inform the tools that archaeologists have increasingly come to use for analysis. These took ranges from relational databases to GIS, computer aided illustrating tools, 3D imaging and manipulation technologies, and even the ubiquitous laptop or desktop computer.

The chapter will drawn upon my own experiences as well as projects like “The Secret Life of Data” project from the Alexandria Archive Institute and the work of folks like Costis Dallas and others who are working to produce an ethnography of digital practices. The goals is not to reject digital technology in analysis, but to argue for a more attentive set of practices in our use of digital tools.

Chapter 3: Slow Archaeology and Writing

This chapter would consider how a slow archaeology would shape the writing and dissemination of archaeological knowledge. Over the last 40 years, archaeologists have become increasingly attuned to how our forms of archaeological writing shape the arguments we make. This chapter won’t add much to this larger discussion, but will present an updated survey of recent efforts to explore more nuanced, complex, and affective forms of archaeological writing and presentation. 

Part 2: Slow Archaeology and the Academy

This chapter will look at three key areas of archaeological work through the lens of slow archaeology: professional practices, teaching, and publishing. The goal is to extend the basic critical principles of slow practice beyond the field work to publishing continuum and think about how both teaching slow practices and engaging in slow archaeology could shape a wider range of disciplinary practices in academic archaeology.

Chapter 4: Slow Archaeology as Professional Practices

This will be a grab bag chapter that considers things like graduate seminars, academic conferences, and even peer reviewing as places where various slow practices provide a  basis for critiquing academic archaeology. This chapter would argue that slow archaeology questions how archaeologists communicate with one another and the underlying practices and goals associated with supposed “merit-based” methods of advancement. To be clear, this chapter will consider how “generous thinking” can serve to undermine the persistent fantasy that the current set of disciplinary practices advance the best possible candidates to positions of leadership in our field. 

It will suggest that unconferences, collaborative projects, and greater efforts to engage with the community can challenge competitive models of advancement increasingly grounded in quantified methods for evaluating research and performance. In its place, slow archaeology proposes convivial practices that celebrate diversity, plurality of views, and egalitarian methods of creating new knowledge.

Chapter 5: Slow Archaeology and Teaching

Like the previous chapter, this chapter will develop conviviality as a mode through which to understand teaching at the university level (and ideally beyond). I’ve written a bit about this already without explicitly invoking slow archaeology, but I think my critique of technology and the “assessocracy” is consistent with my larger critique technologically-mediated and efficiency-driven archaeological practices. The emphasis here will largely be on the undergraduate classroom and I’ll lean on my work with the Wesley College Documentation Project as a case study.

Chapter 6: Slow Archaeology and Publishing

I’ve already developed many of the main ideas for this chapter in a paper that I submitted last fall titled: Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics. In a nutshell, this article proposes that changes in technology have allowed archaeologists to approach publishing in new and collaborative ways that can challenge the traditional role of publishers in our discipline. Like the other chapters in the book, this will chapter will demonstrate how slow archaeology is not necessarily anti-technology, but rather an approach to technology that allows for a more critical and ideally responsible (and egalitarian) approach to the discipline.

Conclusion: Toward a Slower Discipline

The final part of the book will look to the place of slow archaeology amid the changes taking place within the discipline of archaeology — from the casualization of academic labor, the rise of the assessocracy, and the pressure on our field to become more diverse, pluralistic, and responsive to a wider range of communities.

It goes without saying that slow archaeology will not solve all the discipline’s problems nor is it somehow above critique. Instead, I’ll suggest that slow practices have a place within our archaeological toolkit and offers ways to critique long-standing archaeological practices and create new ways of engaging with the public, students, and our peers.

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