Writing Wednesday: Some Fragments

I’m juggling a few projects lately and that always keeps me on my toes and excited to get to work in the morning.

Right now, I’m working with Rachael Kiddey to edit the inaugural volume in the CHAT book series. It’s a collection of papers from festivalCHAT which was an online conference held in 2020. I’m also finishing a book review that’s probably due October 1, and most importantly, I’m finishing revisions on a paper that I wrote about the “Bakken Babylon” for a special section to appear next year in Near Eastern Archaeology on the archaeology of climate change.

One of the critiques of this paper was that it was a bit hard to understand what I was trying to do. While I saw this as a feature, the editors of the special section suggested that it might be understood as a “bug” by the audience of NEA who might not expect a contribution that blurs the line between fiction and criticism. This was a fair observation and I decided to add an introductory paragraph that sets up a bit more explicitly what I was trying to do.

Here’s the new introduction and this introduction is followed by a link to the paper as it now stands.

This article is an experiment. Its origins are in my decades of work in the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota and my nearly two decades of field work in the Near East, primarily Cyprus, although this work is more clearly influenced by the former than the latter. During our time writing and thinking about the Bakken, we recognized similarities between the materiality of extractive industries in North Dakota and in the contemporary Near East. In some cases, the same companies operated in both places, such as Haliburton and Schlumberger. In other cases, the same individuals worked in both places and recognized the similarities in modular force housing and daily routines. The similarities between extractive industries in both places paralleled the global reach of contemporary climate change. This understanding encouraged us to consider whether modern geographies that support the borders of nation states, our understanding of regional practices and the discipline of archaeology itself impaired our ability to imagine climate change on a global scale. Archaeologists have already contributed to multi-site approaches designed to trace the impact of climate change in different regional contexts. While comparative and multi-site approaches to provide windows into the history and impact of climate change, they often remained linked to regional narratives and economic and demographic networks informed by traditional political geographies.

This paper will explore the potential for more “planetary” approaches to understanding climate change which complicate and obscure modern geography. In fact, this article will embrace certain aspects of the fictional universe imagined in Reza Negarestani’s philosophical novel, Cyclonopedia, which follow the trail of an Iranian archaeologist, Dr. Hamid Parsani, who located oil at the center of a radical cosmology with roots in Near Eastern antiquity. This wildly speculative and painfully obscure text provides a kind of sandbox to where I combine some of my experience in the Bakken with a planetary view of Babylon informed as much by Bruno Latour and Dipesh Chakrabarty view of planet approaches to climate change as the recent fictional works in speculative realism. The goal of this article is less a clear method or even a roughly defined approach and more of an inducement to more radical ways of thinking necessary to understand the industrial landscapes of the contemporary Bakken and Near East within the planetary history and consequences of the looming climate catastrophe.

Here’s a link to Bakken Babylon, part 1 and Bakken Babylon, part 2.

More on Isthmia Data

My post today is mostly for data nerds (or want-to-be data nerds, in my case). For the last two months, I’ve been messing around with some databases from the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia in Greece. I have any number of goals with doing this and most of them loosely coalesce around “figuring out how good this data is and whether I can do anything with it as it is now.” Recently, though, I’ve gotten tired of waiting to see if the data is good enough and started to tinker with it a bit as a way to see if I could build some hypothesis and find problems with the data through testing it. 

The biggest challenge with this data is folding together five different datasets and getting them to talk to one another.The first data set is the context pottery read at Isthmia over the years. This consists of pot sherds that aren’t special enough to be inventoried but can nevertheless be identified as from a particular class of vessel. The second dataset is the “lots” dataset. This is a list of lots – or stratigraphic units – excavated over the years at Isthmia. It’s hard to know whether it represents ALL the lots excavated or just some of them. Most of these lots also have locations (that is areas at the site) as well as trenches and many have been assigned dates. 

The other three data sets for my current experiment consist of inventoried pottery and lamps. Two are the Byzantine and Roman pottery deemed special enough to warrant formal cataloguing. Some of this material formed the basis for Jean Marty-Peppers 1979 Penn dissertation. There is also a database that lists the inventoried lamps which have recently been published by Birgitta Wohl. Part of the larger goal of my work is to make sure these datasets “talk” to the publications. More importantly, however, I worked to assign each of these 3000 or so artifacts to its appropriate lot (or stratigraphic context). This would ensure that these datasets could “talk to” the lots and context finds databases. This is work in progress because sometimes the lot isn’t very clear and I’ll have to dig into the notebooks at some point to make sure that these datasets talk to each other well as I can. 

I was able to kluge these datasets together with only a little bit of fuzziness between them (for example, some of the lamps come from deposits that may [or may not] be identified as lots). Some of our standardized vocabulary for artifacts (we have adapted a version of the chronotype naming system) isn’t quite tidied up yet as well. So there’s some more work to do.

I can however offer some very simply examples for how this work might be useful.

One of the first datasets that I wanted to explore involved our assemblage of Slavic pottery. Slavic pottery is a shorthand for hand or slow-wheel made cooking pots and beakers with geometric decorations. They may be associated with “Slavic” migrants to the Southern Balkans, but this remains a bit of an open question. Generally this material dates to the 7th or 8th centuries (or later).

We are now able to quantify our Slavic material in some mildly interesting ways. For example, we can now say that we have 132 contexts that contained some Slavic material. 28 of these contexts produced inventoried finds and the rest of the Slavic material came from context pottery. Slavic ware appeared in almost every context from across the site. Conventionally we’ve associated Slavic ware with depositions found in the area of the Roman bath, but, it turns out that a very narrow majority of Slavic sherds came from other locations around Isthmia (52.4%). We can also use the dates assigned to lots (based on?) to get a broad sense of the character of the contexts in which Slavic ware appears. 48% of it appears in Late Roman and Early Byzantine contexts (which appear to date from the 4th-8th century). 24% of it comes from later Medieval contexts (e.g. Middle and Late Byzantine contexts) and about 26% comes from mixed contexts. Of course, it is hardly surprising that most common location for Slavic pottery in in Early Byzantine and Late Roman contexts associated with the Roman Bath (29%), but the Early Byzantine and Late Roman as well as mixed deposits associated with the Northeast Gate produced not insignificant quantities of material. That over 20% of the Slavic material came from the Northeast Gate is interesting and I’m eager to dig a bit more into this.

It’s not a massive leap from this to a study of the larger assemblage associated with the Slavic material. Of course, for this to be meaningful, we also need to study the excavation context, but this is a future project. 

Working with Isthmia data has also allowed me to start to think about the distribution of material across the site in different ways. David Pettegrew and I have been thinking a bit about how we might compare the assemblages produced by excavation at Isthmia with those produced by the intensive pedestrian survey of the Eastern Korinthia. David has published the data from the latter which makes it a convenient dataset to explore.

For now, however, I was content to explore the data from the Isthmia datasets across the site. There are some provisos, of course. First, I have no real sense how complete this dataset it. On the one hand, I expect that if it is not complete, it is incomplete in an effectively random way. On the other hand, the dataset might be lacking non-stratified assemblages that might contain material from later or earlier periods. As a way to offset this, I decided, just as a little experiment to compare the distribution of common Roman fine wares at two areas of the site: The East Field and the Roman Bath.

The results are pretty boring, but could inspire some hypothesis building. For example, maybe it’s worth noting that the East Field and the Roman Bath produced roughly equal amounts of the long-lived and common African Red Slip ware (28%-30%), but the Bath produced more, later Phocean Red Slip (LRC) ware (16% to 3%). The East Field, in contrast, produced more Candarlı Ware (12%) than the Bath (8%). At first, I suspected that this was because the East Field less later material than the Bath which, if I recall, remained in use as an activity area later, but the Bath assemblage had a higher proportion of ESA/B wares (32% to 28%) which tend to have earlier Roman dates. Both areas produced a good bit of something called “Class H” pottery. In fact, it was the plurality of the assemblage from the East Field (34%) and consisted of 15% of the material from the Bath. I have no idea what this is and it is not mentioned in Jean Marty-Pepper’s dissertation or the recent Hayes and Slane volume of Roman pottery from Isthmia. In other words, its some kind of fine ware that is not included in the two most recent (if 1979 is indeed recent) and thorough catalogues of material from Isthmia, which is a bit odd.

As we continue to refine the data, it’ll become possible to perform other kinds of comparisons between material associated with various areas of the site sites. The kind of legacy data produced by Isthmia probably is not sufficiently robust to constitute “big data,” but my hope is that by slowly cleaning it up, it’ll help us at least make some new connections and pose some new questions.

Music Monday: The Music of Pharoah Sanders

About two weeks ago, the great Pharoah Sanders passed away. As readers of my blog know, I have a great fondness for post-Coltrane saxophone and Sanders’s music in particular. I would expect that anyone interested in spiritual and free jazz or improvised music more broadly would find something inspiring and compelling in Sanders’s music. 

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to a good bit of Sanders’s work as a band leader and it was moving and dynamic as ever. As I perused his discography, however, I was struck by how often he supported other musicians over the course of his long career and added his distinctive tenor playing to their recordings without overshadowing the other musicians or bandleader.

In some cases, as in Coltrane’s sometimes maligned and often misunderstood posthumous live album Om, Sanders contributes to the sheets of sound that seem to reach their apogee in this recording. 

It’s hard to get more deeply spiritual than what Coltrane and friends were trying to do on Om (as well as Ascension or Expression), but Sanders’s nearly contemporary work with Alice Coltrane in 1970, Ptah, the El Daoud, which conjures its spiritual power from Egyptian and Indian inflected music propelled only higher by Coltrane and Sanders’s playing. (More on that album here).

(I’m adding to my little list here and album that I haven’t yet heard, but I discovered while scrolling through Sanders’s discography. Sanders plays on Larry Young’s 1973 record: Lawrence of Newark

I need to listen to more Larry Young sometime soon!)

Sanders’s collaborative spirit continued in the 1980s and 1990s including a lovely date with Benny Golson (no such thing as too many tenors?) celebrating the legacy of John Coltrane with a set of tunes that harken to his more hard-bopish days.

In the 1990s, Sanders’s showed that he could still light a fire on one of my favorite albums Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages (1991), and I love that he manages to play within the concept of Sharrock and Laswell’s rock-influenced jazz. 

Finally, as many of you know, Sanders returned to some recent prominence among the alternative music crowd through his appearance on the Floating Points’ album Promises last year.   

For a musician (and person!) often recognized for his generous and spiritual character, it feels fitting to recognize his remarkable work with other musicians. It’s also a cool reminder that despite his sometime incendiary style, he could play within any number of structures from mid-1960s hard bop to contemporary electronic recordings. His playing was almost always on point and he always seemed to be himself, and perhaps that’s the best way that anyone could be remembered.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Some days don’t really get started until they’re upon you in a fierce and irresistible way. Today is one of those days. So, Friday Varia and Quick Hits is late. 

Fortunately, it’s also a beautiful day outside and the chaos of the morning should give way to some genuine conviviality this afternoon and evening. It’ll at least be enough to keep me from fretting about how the Phillies are pissing away their playoff chances, the Eagles position themselves for the kind of disappointment that only Philadelphia fans understand, and an F1 driver’s championship that should be all but clinched this weekend in Singapore. 

Not to mention the horrors in the aftermath of Ian in Ft. Myers (where my brother and parents live) and my stack of responsibilities with early October deadlines.

At least I can celebrate the publication of the very first novel from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. If you haven’t checked out Brian R. Urlacher’s The Library of Chester Fritz, you’re really missing something. It’s exactly the kind of early fall read that sets the tone for the season! Go here to download a copy for free!

LCF COVER Single

So sometimes a little chaos has a way to keep me on my toes even if it means that I’m a bit late with this week’s quick hits and varia.

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Teaching Thursday: NDQ Editor’s Note

In general, I try to keep what I do in the classroom and what I do as a researcher (and as a member of the university community more broadly) loosely divided. It ensures that teaching, service, and research retain an element of freshness and my days don’t get too bogged down in doing the same kind of thing over and over. For example, I don’t teach archaeology or do much with Late Roman Cyprus in the classroom. And I rarely allow my work at NDQ or The Digital Press to cross pollinate too fully with what I do as a researcher or in the classroom. I like to think of it as keeping a healthy set of boundaries and diversifying my portfolio.

This semester, though, I let this division slip a bit and I’m teaching a class in editing and publishing which focuses mainly on working with various aspects of North Dakota Quarterly. As part of that, I asked my students to help me craft an “editor’s note” that celebrated their contribution to NDQ. Here it is:

This semester I’ve had the good fortune of being joined by five undergraduates from the University of North Dakota’s English Department’s program in a practicum in editing and publishing. Nicholas Ramos, Aubrey Roemmich, Emily Shank, Elena Uhlenkamp, and Karissa Wehri have talked with me about the content in the issue, put the articles in order, and have happily helped me organize NDQ‘s new office on campus.

As they organized the issue they discussed the themes in the poetry, stories, and essays. They observed how much of work embodied the power of everyday experiences where commonplace settings of offices, shops, schools, and homes give rise to religious, spiritual and even magical encounters. Parenthood, relationships, chance encounters, a book store, and even a cup of coffee create occasions for something special to occur. 

In some ways, the work in this volume reflects the character of North Dakota. As Aubrey Roemmich noted: “Growing up a North Dakota native, I always thought that it was a boring place. It was not until I was much older that I started to appreciate its beauty and intrigue. Many of the poems in this issue perfectly capture the beauty that is inherent in these places.”

Environmental History at the Northern Great Plains History Conference

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a couple sessions at the Northern Great Plains History Conference in Fargo. Each year that I end up attending this conference, I invariably return home with a head swimming with new ideas and perspectives. 

This year, I managed to only make it to two sessions: one where I presented with the other editors of state journals, and the other on environmental history. This latter panel got me thinking about two long simmering projects on my overloaded academic hot stove.

First, I was completely fascinated by Kathleen Brokke’s paper on the environmental history of the Red River Valley. It was poetic and sweeping and managed to draw me into the complexities of the tall grass prairie, the wooded river and stream banks, and even the more recent shelter belts, ditches, and fields of the Red River Valley.

I have to admit that didn’t quite grasp relevance of her work until it intersected in my head with David Vail’s paper on the Great Plains Agricultural Council’s work in the 1950s. Vail demonstrated that the administrative logic and pubic presentation of the GPAC aligned with the same national security priorities present in such programs as Civil Defense. In the 1950s, fear of another dust-bowl type drought and the potential for both short term and long-term damage to agricultural outputs (and food security) motivated large scale research and policy making from the executive branch of the US government. The most visible example of this was the personal involvement of both President Eisenhower, who toured the most vulnerable agricultural areas of the Great Plains in the 1950s, and former President Truman who was active on GPAC as an advisor. 

This helped me realize that the efforts to tame the flow of the Red River of the North through the city of Grand Forks in the 1950s was part of a larger program associated with the post-war and Cold War restructuring of American society and its landscape. It was interesting to hear about the series of dams built in the 1950s to control the flow of the Missouri and Sheyenne Rivers for irrigation and power. At the same time, the city of Grand Forks, which had started to expand to the south following emerging trends in suburbanization remained susceptible to flooding from the Red River. The devastating Red River flood of 1950 prompted a new set of flood walls constructed by the Army Corp of Engineers to protect the downtown of the growing city. At around the same time, the US Air Force started construction on the Strategic Air Command base at Grand Forks. 

The development of shopping centers, malls, housing developments with large lots, modern churches, schools, and recreation facilities contributed to the creation of the post-war city that manifested the privileges of convenience, consumer culture, and the steady growth of the “butter economy”. Of course, this growth also included features like bomb shelters and new forms of architecture inspired by military installations (e.g. not only brutalism, but also more broadly modernist forms of architecture that embrace the coarse textures of concrete and fortified facades that imitate gun slits).

The 1997 flood wall, constructed by the US Army Corp of Engineers no less, mimics the forms of military architecture with its solid concrete walls (textured in an ashlar pattern) and long stretches of substantial earthen barriers. Thus by the end of the 20th century the Red River itself was subjected to militarized forms of discipline which served to protect the vulnerable consumer culture that emerged on Grand Forks’s expanding urban grid. Thus, environmental history, the Cold War, and Civil Defense intersected in the developing landscape of Grand Forks in ways that I wouldn’t have considered fully had I not enjoyed a couple of papers at the Northern Great Plains History Conference.

New Book Day: The Library of Chester Fritz

It’s homecoming week at UND and we have a homecoming themed book for New Book Day! It’s the first book in what should be a pretty exciting 2022/2023 publishing season!

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Brian R. Urlacher’s, The Library of Chester Fritz, is the first novel published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, but is very much in keeping with our focus on the history of the state, our campus, and the region’s remarkable characters.

More importantly (especially to anyone without a real connection to North Dakota or UND), the book is a good story. Urlacher’s novel weaves his story into the real journals of Chester Fritz to produce chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

If that sounds pretty cool to you, you can download the book for FREE from The Digital Press website or buy it for the low, low price of $7 from Amazon. Remember being a paperback copy offers more than just the fine sensation of holding a paper book in you hand, but also supports The Digital Press’s mission to publish more open access books in the future!

https://thedigitalpress.org/the-library-of-chester-fritz/

If you’re still on the fence as to whether to download a free book, I offer a slightly more dramatic version of the book’s plot below:

Fate has entangled a library, a businessman, and the future of humanity. A trail of documents left behind by an eccentric businessman, traveler, and philanthropist Chester Fritz is the only way to understand the urgent danger. This book brings together Chester Fritz’s journals and follows his travels through war torn China and his ascent to the heights of global capitalism.

As World War II plunges the world into chaos, Fritz and his traveling companions wrestle with what to do and what forces are too dangerous or too dark for humanity to wield. But something must be done, and the decision will fall to Chester Fritz.

Thank you, as always, for supporting The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and, if you like this title, do share your enthusiasm over twitter (@digitalpressund) or Facebook.

If you don’t like this title, that’s ok! It was FREE. And I’m pretty sure we’ll publish something that you DO like later in 2022-2023 season!

The formal press release is below and you can download the book’s full media kit here.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Time is Running Out!

The Chester Fritz Library holds the secret of its mysterious donor and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Anyone who has spent time on the University of North Dakota’s campus knows it to be an enchanted place. A new novel takes this feeling to the next level.

The Library of Chester Fritz, is the debut novel by Professor of Political Science, Brian R. Ulacher. This daring and imaginative work hints that the power of the UND campus might go far beyond its well-kept gardens and collegiate Gothic architecture. Urlacher’s novel traces the travels of former UND student and benefactor, Chester Fritz, through early 20th-century China and speculates that his experiences on this journey introduced him to a powerful, and dangerous, secret.

Chester Fritz’s journal a version of which was published by the University of North Dakota Press in the 1980s and describes his work and travels in China prior to World War II. Fritz was born in Buxton, North Dakota and attended UND before heading to the West Coast and then abroad to make his fortune. In 1950 and 1969, Fritz made sizeable donations to UND which funded the library and auditorium that bear his name. Urlacher built from this manuscript and developed his story in a way that integrates seamlessly with Fritz’s own words. The result is a chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

Urlacher points out that Fritz’s journals themselves offer more than enough fodder for the imagination. He said, “I’m fascinated and frankly perplexed by Fritz’s choice to travel across China in 1917. He was utterly unprepared when he set his course through the heart of a civil war in which warlords, bandits, and crusader armies vied for every inch of territory.”

In Urlacher’s novel, Fritz’s mysterious experiences abroad become entangled with his monumental library at the heart of the UND campus. Urlacher explains that he was inspired by the Chester Fritz Library: “I’ve spent a lot of time just wandering among the stacks. I’m not sure if other people experience this, but I get a static tingle in libraries. Something about massing books, each representing a lifetime’s worth of experience, in such close proximity is powerful. There are so many stories about books being more than just pages, and libraries being more than just buildings. When I sat down to start world building, there was never a question of where to anchor the story. It had to be the Chester Fritz Library.”

Urlacher noted that something of Chester Fritz’s spirit lingers on our campus, observing, “Fritz had this unshakable optimism, and it comes through in his journal. He writes with an understated North Dakota humor, which is makes for very charming prose.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, The Library of Chester Fritz is available as a free download or as a paperback book from Amazon.com.

 

Music Monday: Listening

Like many people, I was saddened to hear about the passing of Pharoah Sanders. I love his music and want to write something, but I need to think a bit about how to do that in a way that’s meaningful to me and to my readers.

In the meantime, I’m going to complain about something incredibly banal and inconsequential. Last week, I noted that the late Ramsey Lewis, whose influence on jazz, R&B, and pop music is undeniable, has not received seen the same barrage of master recordings, authorized bootlegs, and archival remasters as jazz musicians who are more household names. While this is unfortunate, this does make sense to me. I’m likewise disappointed that a good number of Pharoah Sanders 1980s albums released on the Theresa label are not available on many streaming services and only available as rather price CD imports. (I’m particularly disappointed to no longer have my copy of Sanders’s Rejoice where he is joined by Bobby Hutcherson on vibes among many others. It is on Youtube, though. If anyone has a high quality rip of this album and is willing to share…)   

I tend to listen to moderately obscure music at times and some of these things are only available on CD. I’m also susceptible to the arguments put forward by guys like John Darko for why they continue to buy CDs. I like the idea of making sure artists get paid more for their work than they would if it were streamed (even if the idea of “owning” music or books feels a bit perverse to me). In any event, I often find myself conflicted between the ease of streaming music and the desire to listen to more obscure recordings or to collect things.

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been two new released that have attracted my attention. The first is John Coltrane’s Blue Train: Complete Masters. This reissue of this classic 1958 Coltrane album is in Blue Note’s fancy Tone Poet series meaning that it really is all about its release on 180 g vinyl. Of course, you can also get it on CD and through most steaming services. As the title indicates, it includes quite a few alternate takes (which appear on the second LP or CD). The alternate takes appear loosely in the order that they appear on album. This is nice because it helps a listener keep mental track of the original recording and discern the differences present in the alternate takes. For example, it feels like Lee Morgan plays more freely in the “Blue Train (Take 7)” than in the version released on the album.  

(And, yeah, I thought of Rejoice because it includes a version with vocals (!!) of Coltrane’s now standard “Moments Notice” which originally appeared on Blue Train).

John Coltrane Blue Train The Complete Masters

I was also happy to enjoy the latest from the acclaimed Miles Davis bootleg series which featured out takes from the sessions that produced his late classics, Star People (1983) and You’re Under Arrest (1985). Unlike the Coltrane masters, these outtakes do not have the benefit of the original recordings.

This, of course, is understandable considering the complex rights situation. What’s more vexing is the decision to put two versions of the same song back-to-back. I love Miles Davis’s version of “Time After Time” as much as anyone, but close to 15 minutes of it leaves me wanting something else. The back to back versions of “Hopscotch” at different tempos is nice, but it has me wanting to skip ahead (see what I did there?) to the reggae tinged version of “What’s Love Got To Do With It?

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It has become a standard refrain from folks into vinyl and CD that listening to an entire album by an artist is a lost art. As I sit in my comfy chair listening to Rejoice on YouTube without track breaks, thorough or deluxe liner notes or even a track listing, I definitely encounter the music differently. For this very reason, I might be a bit reluctant to buy volume 7 of the otherwise outstanding bootleg series on CD. I’m not sure this is an album that I’d enjoy listening to from start to finish, not because the music isn’t great (it is!), but because instead of releasing an album worth of alternate takes, this is a hatfull of tracks designed, it would appear for skipping and selecting on streaming services rather than setting and enjoying on a physical spinning medium.    

Three Things Thursday: Campus, Corinthia, and Conferences

This week has become more hectic than I would have wished, but mostly it’s hectic with good things. I’m looking forward to heading to Fargo tomorrow for the Northern Great Plains History Conference and pleased that some of the work that I put into cleaning up data from the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia is almost far enough along to sustain some basic hypothesis building. These two things, and the changing face of my institutions campus will be the topic of today’s “three things Thursday.”

Thing the First

UND’s campus is really changing. Over the last three or four years, the university has implemented a new campus master plan, built a number of new buildings, created elevated walkways between existing buildings, and introduced new landscaping to the campus quad that turned several roads into pedestrian only zones.

For the last decade or so the old Medical School’s “Science Building” has housed my Department of History and American Indian Studies. This has been completely renovated with new conference rooms, offices, and classrooms. It’s pretty nice and while I liked my massive office carved out of lab space, my new office feels clean, compact, and contemporary.

It also has a glass door, which is a bit odd, and the hallway outside the office is access only through door controlled by key cards (at least outside normal building hours). The hallway also has a number of cameras. The bathroom has no doors.

I get that we live in a society where control, access, and surveillance have become synonymous with power. And I also understand that privacy is not a right, but a privilege reserved for those who can afford the necessary protocols, treatments, and tactics. And, finally, I get that control over the commons (and a public state university is a kind of commons) is necessary to avoid the abuse of its limited resources.

That said, I am still bit a put off by the level of control and surveillance that exists in our new building.

Thing the Second

I’m so, so, so close to having some of the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia data ready for some preliminary analysis. In fact, when I’m done a few odds and ends this morning, I plan to work on some of the last bits of data this morning. As I reported last week, most of what I’m doing at this stage is recoding information originally recorded on paper inventory cards and keyed to notebook pages to more standardized formats appropriate for digital databases and keyed to stratigraphic unit (which, in turn, can be connected to particular pages in the notebooks).

While I have some long term goals with this project — including preparing the data for publication — but in the short-term, I want to be able to do some basic analysis of our assemblages that allow us to hypothesis build. For example, it will be possible to analyze the material from various parts of Isthmia as one might analyze a survey assemblage. We’ve been doing this some with the data from Polis where we’ve been able to consider both the presence or absence of certain forms of fine and utility wares across the site. For Isthmia, the plan might be to pull together all the material from, say, the East Field or the Roman Bath and use it as a window into what classes of artifact are present in the region at various times and perhaps even in what proportion to other contemporary artifacts.

Of course, this won’t be the last word in our analysis of the material from Isthmia, but it should offer the first word and an opportunity to understand the character of the Isthmia assemblage in a more systematic, if also more superficial, way.

Thing the Third

If you’re planning on going to the Northern Great Plains History Conference this week, do consider stopping by my panel tomorrow morning. I’ll be talking about the state of North Dakota Quarterly in session 34: The State of State Journals: Past, Present, and Future with editors of South Dakota History, North Dakota History, and Minnesota History.

You can download a copy of the conference program here.

You can read a copy of what I plan to say here.

More Pseudoarchaeology

As readers of this blog know (perhaps too well), I’ve been slowly exploring the topic of pseudoarchaeology over the last couple of years (here and here are links to most recent posts). Recently, I’ve explored the concept of an anti-racist pseudoarchaeology that rejects narratives infused with white supremacy and colonialism and amplifies anti-colonial and Black voices. This is both a move to challenge dominant narratives that seek to white-wash pseudoarchaeology and to celebrate the long tradition of alternative archaeologies that mark out the intersection of indigenous knowledge, popular perspectives on the past, and disciplinary archaeology.

With this as a preamble, I was really thrilled this weekend to read the newest edition of Pauline Hopkins’s “Radium Age” science fiction, pseudoarchaeology classic Of One Blood. The introduction of Minister Faust is well worth the modest price of this edition from MIT Press. And I look forward to the usual suspects blogging, Tweeting, and dissecting this book!

The story is a familiar one. The main character, Reuel Briggs, is a Black man passing as white at Harvard Medical School. His deep sense of alienation and depression belied his brilliant medical studies which combined conventional medicine with spiritualism, the occult, and mesmerism. A miraculous intervention by Reuel’s saved the life of a beautiful young woman, Dianthe Lusk, with whom he falls in love and marries. Despite his growing fame of a doctor, Reuel’s lack of wealth led him to despair of his ability to support his young bride. Reuel’s wealthy friend, Aubrey Livingston, took an interest in both Briggs’s predicament and his new wife, and arranges a lucrative opportunity for Reuel to travel to Ethiopia as the doctor on an archaeological expedition.  

While in Ethiopia, Livingstone feigns his own and Dianthe’s death and sneaks off to his ancestral home in Maryland with her. At the same time, Reuel discovers the secret city of Telassar hidden among the ruins of ancient Meroe on the Nile. This hidden city has survived for thousands of years with only limited and deliberate contact with the outside world and had consequently escaped the depredations of colonialism and racism. In the city, Reuel find that he is, in fact, the city’s long-anticipated ruler and he ascends to the throne as King Ergamenes and marries the queen (appropriately named Candace). The advanced spiritualism and technology of Telassar, however, soon reveal to him that Dianthe is still alive and he leaves the city bent on saving her from his former friend’s clutches. Meanwhile, Dianthe meets with a former slave of the Livingston family who tells Dianthe that not only is she Reuel’s sister, but she is the half-sister of Aubrey Livingston. This discovery drives her to try to poison Aubrey while Reuel rushes to save her from the other side of the globe… 

The novel hits upon a number of key themes in pseudoarchaeology:

There’s a hidden city whose residents had both technological and spiritual powers that far exceeded contemporary society. While readers seem tempted to compare Telassar to Wakanda from the Black Panther comics (and films). Wakanda, however, is a more conventional resource state which draws upon its supply of vibranium (which itself derives from a meteorite) for both its technology and its citizens’ super human powers. Thus Wakanda follows a more conventional narrative that connects Wakanda’s ability to escape and resist colonization to its access to resources (and perhaps more nefariously, its connection to extraterrestrial power). In short, Wakanda’s independence is more like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than Telassar’s more mystical autonomy which stems from its ancient connections to the ancient wisdom of various African and Near Eastern people: the Chaldeans, Nubians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians. 

Conventional archaeological practices did not provide the expedition with access to the hidden city. Reuel discovered it quite by accident (or through the complicity of the political leaders of Telassar who abducted him as he wandered the ruins of Meroe). The expedition came to Meroe looking for treasure. The archaeologist (the professor!) learned of this treasure and the various traps that protected it from a map acquired from an individual with intense local knowledge rather than rigorous scientific prospecting or conventional academic knowledge. Thus Reuel’s appearance at the site relied upon both indigenous knowledge and a spiritual awareness derived from his royal bloodline.

Another thread common to Black pseudoarchaeology is Reuel’s ignorance of both his own royal bloodline and his family connections to Dianthe (and indeed Aubrey). The existence of a hidden city that had escaped the colonial conquest of Africa depends, in part, on the historical continuity (as well as the loss of family and ethnic ties) introduced by the Middle Passage and exacerbated by the inhumane disruptions to the family life of enslaved Blacks. In this context, pseudoarchaeology — in various forms — served as a way to reconstruct relationships between the global Black diaspora community and the African society. Reuel’s rediscovery of his royal blood (and his sister Dianthe) allowed him to resolve his own sense of alienation by reconnecting with both his family and his ethnic and political community in Africa.

The important role that spiritualism, mysticism, and occult practices played in Reuel’s reconnection with his African heritage and family finds parallels with both the turn of the century mysticism of individuals such as Edgar Cayce (whose works appear, for example, in Sun Ra’s library and) whose unorthodox interpretations of the Atlantis myth and the Sphinx contributed to his overtly racist theories of polygenism. At the same time, spiritual approaches to knowing the past appear across a wide range of modern indigenous and “popular” practices ranging from Angelos Tanagras’s parapsychology (and dream archaeology) in Greece, to the Ghost Dance among Native Americans, and the prophetic and messianic elements of Nation of Islam and Rastafarianism (and observation made my Minister Faust in his thought-provoking preface to the MIT version of Of One Blood).  

In this broader context, then, pseudoarchaeology demonstrated its capacity to undercut the colonial roots of disciplinary archaeological practices and connect alienated communities to meaningful pasts. As the cultural, scientific, and spiritual aspects of Telassar demonstrate, the power of pseudoarchaeological discoveries is that they disrupt arguments for the modern, linear expectations of social, political, economic, and cultural development. To be clear, I recognize that challenges to such developmental or (social) evolutionary models can sometimes be used by racists to demonstrate the implausibility of certain achievements or to imply the intervention of aliens or other non-human forces. The classic argument that aliens built the pyramids because Africans simply did not have the technology or sophistication to construct such monumental buildings is patently false and grounded in a view of African society as (racially) incapable of such achievements in the past. Moreover it suggests that the alien intervention which allowed Egyptian society “jump the queue” and to acquire technological sophistication without the social and cultural resources to support it, created a dangerously hybrid society doomed to instability and violence. Some critics have offered similar arguments in a more modern vein against the development of post-colonial societies in the Persian Gulf where oil accelerated economic development and allowed these states to “jump the queue” without the putative democratizing pressures of industrialization. Wakanda, after all, is a kingdom, even if its ruler is an enlightened super hero.   

At the same time, most archaeologists accept that various modern developmental models represent racist efforts to justify the superiority of white European civilization from the start. In this context, counter narratives constructed by Black and indigenous pseudoarchaeologists in the early 20th century represent a significant and influential gesture of resistance to colonial practices (including conventional archaeology).