International Travel In COVID’s Wake

My apologies for the intermittent blogging lately. Between a summer study season on Cyprus and a bit more travel than usual, I found it hard than expected to keep up with my writing discipline. 

My trip home took two days and an overnight in Amsterdam. Everything went relatively smoothly other than the typical annoyance associated with travel. That said, after two years of staying home (or at very least not flying), I felt like I experienced travel in a different way.

Here are three, more or less unremarkable, observations.

First, I was struck by the number of times people told me staffing shortages led to delays, changes in policies, and a general sense of crowding. In both of trips through the Amsterdam airport there were long lines for food, to make it through passport control, and the hotel where I stayed had a “luxury buffet” instead of menu service because they were short staffed. In the Amsterdam airport, there were also signs explaining that the delays, long lines, and general crowding were the result of staffing issue.

I’m guessing that this is the results of COVID disruption in a general way and certainly don’t imagine to understand the Dutch economy or the economics of airport service industries (other than a casual chat with a bartender). That said, struggles with staffing seems to be something that is getting blamed for inconveniences across a range of different political and social contexts (if not different macro-economic contexts, necessarily). It is especially interesting to see how staffing issues shape the experience of travel since our experiences exist at the intersection of state controlled processes border control, security theater, and travel regulations, and the market as airports such as Amsterdam’s Schiphol lean heavily into retail shopping and dining and airlines themselves complicating the travel experience with delays and cancelations. 

Second, it was hard to avoid the feeling that something was off about traveling right now. It wasn’t just staffing shortages, lines, crowds, and delays, but how people moved through the airpots that threw me off. In the “before COVID times,” it felt like there was a rhythm to flow of people in large airports. It always struck me as remarkable that groups of individuals impaired to varying degrees with travel fatigue, jet lag, and urgency, nevertheless managed to flow around each other. People seemed to know instinctually how to keep moving and how to follow the currents of people through terminal buildings.

My travel over the last month made me think that something was off. I never recall encountering so many individuals and small groups who would stop abruptly in flow of the crowd in a busy airport. This added an unwelcome new complication to anyone attempting to keep moving while following airport signage or grabbing a glimpse of various flat screens with gate announcements and boarding times. If there is one rule to airport movement it is pay attention to the local flow of traffic and if you have to stop to look at your phone, watch, documents, or a monitor, find a place outside of movement lanes. This understanding seems to have broken down not only among individual travelers who created chaotic eddies of pedestrians that formed around individuals who simply stopped at the end of the moving walkway, but also groups who blindly queued up for coffee or sandwiches in lines that blocked main travel corridors through the terminal.

Obviously some of this awkwardness reflects travelers simply being out of practice navigating airports. I suspect staffing issues and changing COVID-related travel policies compound this by adding to general confusion and creating long lines that interrupt movement in terminals. I also wonder how the relaxing of social distancing policies has created some additional confusion as humans are returning to pre-COVID social practices of movement at different rates. Perhaps even the practice of wearing masks (which I whole heartedly support) changes how we perceive our environment similar to how wearing headphones in a museum makes it impossible not careen randomly through an exhibit space. 

Finally, I was struck this summer by how much airports serve as spaces of social, racial, national, and economic sorting. I know this is a known thing and I get that this is the primary function of borders and border controls. 

That said, I suppose that I needed a couple years away from airports to really SEE it again. This summer, I  spent a good bit of time in passport control lines designated for individuals with non-EU passports. The difference in the racial make up and even the economic make up of the EU and non-EU passport line was pretty remarkable. What made it all the more striking is the line for something called “Global Entry” which was about as white, unmasked, and efficient as you might expect for a private operation designed to make travel easier for, well, white, wealthy people to travel.

In my time hanging out in airports this summer, I also found myself paying more attention to who goes in and out of airport lounges, who walks confidently through priority boarding lines at gates, who is visible beyond the drawn curtains of first and business class (I ride economy+, for the record), who has to deal with random paperwork at the gates, and who travels with a sheaf of travel documents rather than a simple passport. 

Maybe this is simply an indication that I’m getting older and less tolerant of bullshit. Or maybe I’m just more attuned to bullshit because I haven’t traveled as much over the last few years. Whatever the reason, I found the simple routines associated with travel to be even more horrific and dehumanizing than I remembered them to be (and I’m an affluent white guy from a nominally “first world” county with one of the most powerful passports in the world). I realize that avoiding travel is simply avoiding these experiences (and in an of itself a sign of privilege), but traveling makes the horrors of our globalized society so intensively visible and inescapable that I found it soul crushing.

Like most people, I know the rhetoric of traveling opening our eyes and giving us new ways to understand the world, but I can’t help think that participating in the sorting rituals associated with air travel also reinforces social, economic, political, and racial difference and normalizes it. 

(And, yeah, I know people smarter, more socially engaged, and more aware than I am have been saying this stuff for about 50 years. I think, though, that the COVID travel hiatus has made this stuff more visible now, though even for “veteran travelers” who might be inclined to move through airports without noticing or thinking about this kind of thing.)  

Photo Friday: Last Days in the Mediterranean in 2022

I head home from my 2022 study season next week and despite this being a shorter time in the Mediterranean than in the past, I feel like I’ve gotten the good out of my trip and am ready to head home to recharge, get some summer projects wrapped up, and get ready for the next semester.

I’ll leave you with some photos of my time in the Corinthia last week, where I saw some sites that I hadn’t seen recently that captured my academic and aesthetic attention.

Some World War II fortifications:

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Canal worker housing and buildings:

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And of course: 

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And: 

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And one from Cyprus last night:

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Three Things Thursday: Late Antique Corinth, Travel, and End Games

In about 5 days, I return home from my first summer field season in the last three years. It was productive and honestly exhausting even if I never did any real field work and spent most of my time looking at material excavated years ago. Most of our progress, then, hasn’t been revealing or creating new knowledge, but marshalling what already existed into more easily digested forms.

Thing the First

Some of the most useful moments in a field season come from casual conversations over coffee, a meal, or a beer. Last week, my long-time buddy and collaborator, David Pettegrew and I talked about a article that we are writing that surveys research on Late Antique Corinth. The article starts predictably with Oscar Broneer’s famous description of Late Antique Corinth as an “unhappy period of twilight” in his 1954 article on the south stoa.

Within ten years, Dimitrios Pallas unearths the Lechaion basilica, which was among the largest churches in the world in the 6th century. The building was not only architecturally imposing and sophisticated in design, but it was also lavishly adorned with imported marble from imperial quarries. Whatever one thinks of the aesthetics of Early Christian Greece, this building does little to suggest that the city or the region has entered a period of “unhappy twilight.” In fact, the Lechaion church represents just one example of elaborate monumental architecture in the region revealed over the course of the middle decades of the 20th century outside the city of Corinth (and largely, although not exclusively conducted by Greek archaeologists). In this way, interest in the Late Antique city mapped onto the different political and academic agendas pursued by archaeologists with the Americans at Corinth continuing to research the Greek (and Roman) city and the archaeologists in the countryside often working to understand the substantial remains of Late and Post Roman within a different discourse. Archaeologists such as Dimitrios Pallas, for example, sought to locate Early Christian architecture within a continuous tradition of Greek Christianity and, in this context, it less about a twilight of some putative Classical past and more about the emergence of new forms of political, religious, social, and cultural expression both anchored in Classical antiquity and anticipating Medieval and even modern forms of identity. This tension is, of course, bound up in a wide range of commitments that range from the national (or very least broadly political) to the institutional.

Thing the Second

Man, traveling sucks. I spent about four hours in the Athens airport standing in line, sitting in waiting areas, and shuffling amid various crowds of travelers. I was surprised to see the number of American groups in the Athens airport. Most of the groups seemed to be students and there was a palpable excitement surrounding them.

I know it’s not nice to be annoyed by another people’s excitement, but it’s going to take me a while to acclimate to the experience of navigating the traveling public and both ignoring and (whenever possible) avoiding the outward manifestations of other people’s encounters with a new and different world.

On a more positive note, our global COVID sabbatical has certainly made some things more obvious and I wonder whether this will not only require us to re-establish our tolerance for others and consider whether this tolerance is a good thing.

Thing the Third

Now, that I’m back in Cyprus, we have to wrap up the 2022 Polis study season. This involves not only checking the various finds that we’ve catalogued, illustrated, described, and analyzed, as well as going through the massive document that we’ve produced over the last four weeks and figuring out whether all the moving parts work together and make sense.

This is, as you might guess, a pretty miserable task because the best case scenario is that we’re wasting time checking things that don’t need to be checked and worst case scenario triggers frantic work of revision and reassessment. So far, things have been balanced enough not to trigger panic, but also to feel productive. I’m looking forward to sharing some of our work with you next week!

Polis Views

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had my head in the storerooms and museum looking at objects and thinking about space more through the two-dimensional lens of the notebooks and plans and less in three-dimensional terms of a live environment.

So here are some landscape photos that situate Polis in a bit broader context. 

This is Chrysochous Bay facing north.

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The site of E.F2. where the South Basilica stands.

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Here’s a view from the north side of the city toward the Chrysochous Bay.

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And finally, here’s a statue of Regina who was apparently a legendary queen of Cyprus (or whatever). She stands on the quay at Latchi. 

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Bakken Babylon

When I first started working on Cyprus, in 2003 or so, and maybe up to 2008 or 2009, it was pretty easy to avoid being in constant contact with professional colleagues while “in the field.” With COVID accelerating our adoption of technology that allows for remote work, this year I feel like I’m constantly connected to my other responsibilities, for better or for worse, and entangled with other timelines and situations in other places.

This is not a complaint, necessarily. I like remaining involved in my various projects and hearing from colleagues and collaborators when I’m abroad. As I mentioned last week, the intensity of work during field seasons contributes as much to being exhausted as being away from home, eating different food, and having a new routine. Being in contact with my colleagues is a nice way to introduce a bit of home cooking and balance to my life when abroad.

Tomorrow, I’m going to meet with the editors and contributors to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology on archaeology and climate change. This derived from a panel held at ASOR a number of years ago where I presented some of my research on the Bakken and suggested that it  could contribute to larger discussions on man-made climate change. At the end of the panel, which was quite stimulating, I felt concerned that my research didn’t really fit into what the other papers were trying to do. I was less interested in the climate change in the Near East, for example, and more interested in the social processes associated with the oil industry as a kind of surrogate (or a lens) through which we can consider contemporary climate change.

As part of the zoom conversation tomorrow afternoon, we’ve each been asked to talk for one minute on our proposed papers. I’ve been mucking about with mine over the last few months and have posted some fragments (which you can follow here). For my 1 minute precis, I need to wrangle these into something more coherent. Here’s my current plan:

My paper will use Reza Negrastani’s Cyclonopedia, a work of speculative fiction which offers a brilliant, if obscure meditation on the materiality of oil and the oil industry in the Near East, as a kind of cypher to unpack the relationship between the Bakken and Babylon. This aspect of my paper will be (hopefully) playful, but also have the goal of showing how oil conflates the Bakken and the Near East.

It sets the stage for the second part of my paper which makes this conflation a bit more explicit not only by tracing concepts like “dustism” (and the preoccupation with dust) between the two places but also figures like Thomas Barger, Frank Jungers, and Wallace Stegner whose work connected North Dakota with oil in the Persian Gulf.

The final section will suggest that this conflation of the Bakken (or North Dakota) and Babylon not only emphasizes the globalization of the concept of Babylon, which reverberates through critiques of capitalism and colonialism (and their role as the backbone of oil, climate change, and modernity) as well as a global approach to Near Eastern archaeology.

Music Monday: Grachan Moncur III

Last week, Grachan Moncur III died. I got to know him (metaphorically, of course) as a jazz trombonist, but as the obituaries have come in, it is clear that he was also an activist who wrote music for James Balwin’s plays, participated in the wider Black Arts Movement along side Amiri Baraka and Archie Shepp as well as producing and contributing to some iconic albums during the 1960s. I like knowing that avant-garde such as Shepp, Sun Ra, and Moncur understood their music as part of a larger social program that sought to elevate Black people and Black art.

I first encountered Moncur’s playing on Jackie McLean’s album One Step Beyond in 1963. His composition “Ghost Town” is outstanding.

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It wasn’t until after hearing that album about a dozen times that looked up Moncur’s contemporary dates as a leader for Blue Note. On Evolution, he was with a top tier crew with McLean, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Tony Williams on drums, and Bob Cranshaw on bass. It’s all works written by Moncur and they’re all pretty great. Critics seem to really like “Monk in Wonderland,” but “Air Raid” is my favorite. If you haven’t heard this album, it’s pretty great.

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The next year, he released Some Other Stuff with a slightly different crew including the core of Miles Davis’s future outfit (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams with Cecil McBee on bass). As someone who once thought a good bit about Early Christianity the Gothic-sounding “Gnostic” is my favorite track here, although all of them are really outstanding especially since Moncur’s trombone has a bit more space to work on this release.

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While Moncur continued to work extensively over the next 50 years, I want to single out one more of his 1960s recordings. The Way Ahead is an Archie Shepp date from 1969. On it, Shepp and Moncur reprise his “Frankenstein” which appeared on McLean’s One Step Beyond and it’s cool to hear Ron Carter’s frantic bass playing and Shepp’s raspy saxophone remove the early 1960s sheen from this song and allow it to skitter and squawk and announce itself. It’s brilliant and well worth the listen.

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Polis Sights

I’ve been in Cyprus for a couple of weeks now and starting to feel a bit more at home again in the village of Polis.

So I’ve had a chance to get to know this character again:

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I also can’t help thinking that the municipal market in Polis is a bit under utilized. It’s a wonderful and very modern, mid-century space. 

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It opens onto the touristic center of the old village which is distinctly not modern (even if it doesn’t quite feel traditional in a meaningful way).

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Finally, we do a good bit of archaeology here, but it mostly involves spending quality time with sherd.

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We also have continued to collect lovely sunsets.

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Three Things Wednesday: Study Season

This summer’s work at Polis in Cyprus has been a study season. This means that we spend our days in storerooms and at our laptops rather than in trenches or survey units.That said, over the past couple weeks, I got to thinking about our study season and the challenges and opportunities that come from traveling thousands of miles to stare at my laptop and sleep in an uncomfortable bed.

This will be the topic of my non-alliterative three things Wednesday:

Thing the First

Colloquially, archaeologists celebrate study seasons as somehow less intense and rigorous than field work, and this is certainly true on a physical level. I love that I’m not physically exhausted at the end of the day, but for some reason I still find that by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I’m beat.

I’m finding that I’m exerting a huge amount of mental energy on analyzing the results of past field work and putting together our study of finds, notebooks, and various plans. Much of the basic analysis occurred in 2016-2019 and the plan for 2020 was to simple review and finalize it. Over the past two years, we also decided to take work that was destined for a relatively concise (10,000-15,000 word article) and expand it into 30,000 book section. As part of that process, we’re unpacking the reasoning behind small decisions which form the foundations for our arguments. This also prompted us to question our reasoning and review evidence at a highly granular level. In practice this involved reviewing every stratigraphic relationship, checking key artifact identifications and chronologies, and reconsidering the processes that created the site as it was excavated.

What I didn’t anticipate was how exhausting this kind of work would be.

Thing the Second

The other challenge that I’m facing this summer is that I went from juggling any number of projects: from teaching, to editing North Dakota Quarterly, doing college and community service, and fussing with various research projects. This kind of diffused attention allowed me to avoid some of the stress associated with burn out. When I got tired of doing one thing, I could switch my attention and do something else. It’s one of the great luxuries of academic life: we have multiple irons in the fire that allow us a range of opportunities and challenges.

Here on study season, I am focused on one thing. I go from being a fox to a hedgehog. And, it turns out, that being a hedgehog is especially exhausting not only because it involves a constantly (and relentless) level of concentration, but also because there are far fewer opportunities for taking a productive break. Even my beloved blog has fallen a bit to the wayside in the face of the insistent need to finish up projects here at Polis.

It never occurred to me that the structure of academia tends to reward foxes, but providing them with plenty of opportunities to recharge in productive ways. Even taking a morning off to catch up on emails or to grade papers is a relief when the alternative is grading or editing. The range of tasks available on a day-to-day basis ensures that even if I work long hours, there is enough diversity to ensure that I don’t get burned out or stuck in a rut.

This is not the case during a study season. Even moment I spend on something that does not require me to be here in Cyprus is a dollar ill spent.

Thing the Third

The biggest challenge facing us this season is “showing our work” and making the arguments, inferences, and conclusions that we have reached as transparent as possible. This means not only being explicit about our interpretations, but also preparing our data for publication. There is a lot of detailed work necessary to produce legible data for publication. Even just connecting various file types to one another (e.g. notebook pages, stratigraphic descriptions, tables associated with the bulk analysis of context pottery, inventoried pottery tables, and so on) is challenging and tedious.

It also requires attention to detail and a certain amount of concentration. More than that, I feel fatigued by our efforts to wade into the kind of fussy morass that archaeological thinking often produces and to bring order to this without obscuring the rough edges.

And maybe it is this kind of work, which involves making critical leaps, tracing inference in the data structure, and, at times, suspending skepticism, that is the most challenging and exhausting during a study season.

Music Monday: Americana

Over the last week, I’ve been listening to more pop music than usual as part of my daily writing routine. (What’s even stranger is that I’m alternating between so-called “World Music” and Americana these days). Perhaps I’m feeling the tension between being abroad and thinking about home more this year after not traveling for the last two?

Or maybe it’s just a coincidence. The one of the audio reviewers that I regularly enjoy, John Darko of DarkoAudio, mentioned that band Giant Sand and their recent vinyl re-release of their iconic 2012 Tucson. I had heard of Giant Sand, but I had never listened to one of their albums and so on his recommendation, I streamed Tucson, and it’s really a wonderful album. Howe Glebs’s voice seems made for this kind of music as it imbues the stories he tells and scenes he constructs with the dusty patina of the American West. On songs where his voice isn’t front and center (and apparently this album features a cast of dozens including a children’s choir!), the music offers the comfortable and familiar twang and strum of alt-country as a backdrop. As an aside, the song titled “Slag Heap” should superficially resonate with anyone working in western Cyprus!

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I’ve also been listening to James McMurtry’s The Horses and the Hounds (2021). I was (and am still) not entirely familiar with his music or career (other than his famous father) and this album has worked as a kind of introduction for me. I don’t love all his songs and stories, but in some cases, his lyrics and delivery connect with me in ways that leave me (mangling) the words and music on runs and idle moments. Much like Tucson, there’s enough substance here to make the album feel meaningful and in a world that seems teetering in the edge of meaninglessness, that feeling might be all we have.

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Finally, over the weekend, I’ve been listening to the new Wilco album, Cruel County, which came out on Friday. It’s solid work and a comforting listen. The themes are sometimes provocative (and political) enough to reward another listen and personal enough to remind listeners of Wilco’s early efforts that were suffused with just so much earnestness. More than that, the music is pared back and feels as comfortable as a couch on a front porch.
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Polis Murals

Years ago, an urbanist friend told me that murals were like tattoos: everyone thought they looked great when you first get one, but people tend to be less enthusiastic as time passes. 

That said, Polis has a group of new murals. This is consistent with trends across the the Mediterranean where the seemingly endless expanses of concrete walls invite a range of authorized and unauthorized interventions. The murals at Polis are of the former type and their painting was an attraction during the relatively new Polis fish festival.

That said, the murals in Polis continue to embrace political messages as well as elements of the city’s history and contemporary identity.

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Greek and Cypriot artists painted the murals.

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And they’re mostly signed.

Arsinoë rubs shoulders with Aphrodite and Pablo Picasso.

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And they certainly add a “splash of color” to the town.

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