Methods and Time for An Archaeology of the Contemporary World

When I first started thinking about writing a book on the archaeology of the contemporary world, I wanted to write a book on methods and methodology. I’ve most likely scrapped that idea, but I wanted to make sure to include a prominent section on methods in the revised introduction to the book that I’m writing now on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. You can see my original introduction here and some of my work revising it here.

It so happens that over the weekend, I read Cristián Simonetti’s short book titled Sentient Conceptualisations: Feeling and Thinking in the Scientific Understanding of Time (2018) and realized that this book offered me a nice way to transition from talking about time to talking about what we mean when we attempt to use archaeology to describe an American experience. Obviously, documenting experience in either the past or the contemporary is mediated in large part by the methods that we use.

The following is my rough draft of the section on methods. It’s very, very rough at this point, but it gives you an idea of where I’m going:

The tension between the global scope of the supermodern, and the local focus of most archaeological investigations brings us to the matter of method. While this introduction will return to matters of method later and the book itself will explore methodologies in greater detail, the relationship between the notion of contemporaneity, methods, and experience is so deeply embedded in this emergent field that a brief consideration of methodology contributes in a meaningful way to our definition of an archaeology of the contemporary American experience. Cristián Simonetti (2018) has recently observed that archaeology uses an “ego reference point” for its reckoning of time. Time is relative to the present of the archaeologist both in the abstract and in a physical sense. Excavation as a method reveals “deep time” by literally removing earlier layers of earth to reveal “deeper” pasts below. Archaeologists quite reasonable assume that the surface is contemporary with the archaeologist themselves, although we also recognize that contemporary deposits might occur below the literal surface, throughout the plow zone, and even deep within the earth. These cases, however, reflect various kinds of “contamination” in traditional archaeological terminology because they upset the conventional relationship between the archaeologist and the subterranean past. Simonetti contrasted this with the perspective of survey and landscape archaeologists whose attention tends to focus on the contemporary surface. The contemporaneity of the archaeologists and the surface, however, does not suggest that all objects on the surface have the same temporality. Even a casual field walkers knows that it is possible to find objects from deep prehistory on the surface immediately next to an object dropped moments before. Archaeological methods that privilege work on the scale of landscapes likewise recognize multiple temporalities appearing simultaneously. Thus, for Simonetti, the methods employed by an archaeologist often dictate the archaeologists attitude toward time.

My description of Simonetti’s work over-simplified his complex temporal and experiential assessment of archaeological methods, but it serves as a useful point of departure for considering the relationship between the concept of the contemporary and the methods that have emerged to document the recent past. It is unsurprising, for example, that excavation has played a relatively minor role in the archaeology of the contemporary world. As this book will show in Chapters 1 and 2, it remains possible to excavate the contemporary when, for example, excavating a landfill in search of Atari games or to understand wider consumption patterns as performed by William Rathje and his team after years of surveying garbage. The intense community interest surrounding the careful excavation of the remains of individuals interred in a mass grave in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery who died in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 (GET CITE), however, serves as a reminder that temporal distance from the present alone is not an adequate measure of contemporaneity. In fact, excavations can continue to speak to descendent communities in significant and contemporary ways whether through mass graves associated with Indian residential schools or race massacres (GET CITE) or the discarded objects from Japanese internment camps (GET CITE). Excavations can likewise enrich a community’s sense of place and underline and create new and expanded sense of contemporaneity. While public and community centered archaeology will play only a small role in this book, the ability of these methods and practices to transform our sense of the contemporary and shape our experiences in the present is important for the discipline more broadly.

That said, the archaeology of the contemporary world has tended to embrace methods that underscore the existing contemporaneity between the archaeologist and the surface of the ground. This awareness of the contemporaneity between the archaeologist and the ongoing situation was nowhere more manifest than in active site archaeology of the kind of conducted Carolyn White during the Burning Man festival in Nevada, my own research amid workforce housing in the Bakken, or during the ongoing COVID pandemic. In these situations it is obvious both inappropriate and often impossible to excavate. In its place, archaeologists of the contemporary adapted a wide range of very contemporary technologies, from mobile phone cameras to satellite imaging, to capture data in the field. The use of methods associated with ethnography and oral history have likewise come to the fore in archaeology of the contemporary world leveraging methods developed in anthropology to document the “ethnographic present” (Trigger 1981; Simonetti 2018, 135-138) that is contemporary to archaeological work (for more on the convergence of archaeology and anthropology see Garrow and Yarrow 2010). Jason DeLeon’s ethnographic interviews with undocumented migrants coincided with his use of intensive survey methods to document individuals entering the US across the Sonoran Desert, Miriam Rothenberg similarly combined interviews and systematic documentation to understand the remains of volcano-damaged homes in Monserrat, and Davina TwoBears combined ethnographic practice, archaeology, and archival work in her effort to document the Leupp residential school on the Navajo Reservation. There are, of course, many others.

Music Monday: Theo Croker and James Brandon Lewis

This past week, I’ve been enjoying Theo Croker’s latest album, BLK2LIFE || A Future Past. For anyone not familiar with Croker’s work, he’s a young(ish) jazz trumpeter (the grandson, it would seem, of Doc Cheatham. Thanks Wikipedia!) whose last few albums have embraced certain elements of both Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism. 

His most recent album cover is perhaps the most blatant in this regard. Croker, seated an Egyptianizing throne, butterflies, lotus flowers, and surrounded by magical and historical landscapes (including, I believe, Giza and Los Angeles) and a field of stars. According to Croker, the album was inspired by “psilocybin meditations and astral travels” while in COVID lockdown.

IMG 6788

The themes present in the album cover parallel the the titles of a few of his earlier albums, including Afrophysicist, Escape Velocity, and Star People Nation. It is clear that Croker is keying into themes present not just in work of jazz predecessors such as Sun Ra, but the Black culture more broadly. The idea of a future past is perfect for me these days as I’m writing about time, the present, and contemporaneity in archaeology.

The music itself is perhaps less adventurous than the album cover. Croker draws on a wide range of inspirations from fusion era Miles Davis, to Donald Byrd’s soul jazz (who was apparently a mentor to Croker while they were at Oberlin), and, of course, the current trend toward exploring the intersection of jazz and hiphop and R&B. The cameo by Wyclef Jean is pretty fun and appearances by Ari Lennox, Charlotte Dos Santos, Iman Omari, and Kassa Overall create a range of sonic textures and opportunities for engaging with a wide range of listeners. I find the album pretty insistent without being forced and this is either a good or a bad thing, depending on your feeling about the future. 

I usually listen to an album five or six time in various settings before writing about it, but last night after a weekend when I worked too much (more on that later this week) and probably didn’t get enough rest, I put on on James Brandon Lewis’s 2019 album, An UnRuly Manifesto.

IMG 6786

The album cover is a bit less adventurous than Croker’s but still compelling and the music might offer a deeper provocation. Lewis is a tenor sax player who apparently cut his teeth with Charlie Haden. In fact, the album is dedicated to Haden, Ornette Coleman, and Surrealism. It is appropriate, then, that the rhythm section on this album is Luke Stewart on bass and Warren Trae Crudup III. Crudup and Stewart and tight (in a good way) and driving and provide a great foundation for Lewis, Jaimie Branch (on trumpet) and Anthony Priog on guitar to explore. While there is a lot on this album to remind one of Ornette Coleman, the places I found the album most compelling is when it evoked just a bit of Albert Ayler (such as on “Haden is Beauty”… although maybe I’m hearing mid-1960s Coleman and Cherry).

In any event, the album is UnRuly and clearly offers a pre-COVID manifesto of sorts. I’m looking forward to digging more into it this week and spinning (well, virtually at least) Lewis’s two 2021 albums Code of Being  and Jesup Wagon (with the Red Lily Quintet and William Parker on bass!) as well.   

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s a proper Fall Friday after a thoroughly autumnal week! Temperatures were in the 40s and 50s, and there was some rain, some clouds, and some mottled sunlight. All in all, it feels right. (For a nice poetic expression of this, check out David Solheim’s “North Country”).

After an exciting weekend of sports last weekend, this weekend is more of a rest and recovery time. I feel like there will be some yard work in my plans, but I still might kick my weekend off by watching some baseball and maybe the Immanuel Navarrete fight (although I don’t think Joet Gonzalez will give him much trouble).

Otherwise, it’s books, writing, some layout and book design, maybe a nap, and certainly quick hit and varia:

IMG 6748

244479866 10159418013429780 9019037273334963598 n

Three Things Thursday: Fragments of the Future

An old friend of mine once told me that he wasn’t writing so much any more because writing with an act that assumed a future and he no long assumed that there was a future. At around the time he said this, he left academia and he and his partner left town. The entire sequence of events was not only depressing, but also convinced me that he was much smarter than I and academia (and our community) was going to be much the poorer for his and his partner’s departure. I really don’t know whether he writes any more and I’ve been a bit too nervous to ask.

Over the last few years I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the future. This summer, for example, I read (well, ok, I listened to) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future (2020) and wrote about it here. I’ve been thinking a bit, on and off, about Afrofuturism and about how archaeology of the present exists in the space between a recognizable past and an anticipated future.

In the spirit of this musing, I offer three little fragments of the archaeology of the future here:

Fragment the First

One of the most interesting things about Sun Ra is his willingness to conflate the past and the future. For Ra this was a response to the excitement of the post-War moment when the potential of new forms of social and economic mobility met the dawning of the Space Age. At the same time, Ra understood that traditional forces in American society would continuously undermine and challenge whether Black people would have access to this new future.

This ambivalent attitude toward the future required Ra to both break with the traditional view of the Black past anchored as it was in their experiences of enslavement and legal, social, political, and economic marginalization. In the place of these experiences Ra imagined new pasts for Black people. He embrace of a wide range of Afrocentrist perspectives on the past allowed him to imagine Africa, and Egypt in particular, as the new foundation for both contemporary and future Black unity and power. His willingness to construct a new past that would allow Black people full access to a Space Age future may well represent an early and significant example of Laurent Olivier’s notion of presentism. For Olivier, presentism represents a view of the present that is no longer linear and is, therefore, no longer the product of the past. The break between the present and the past likewise allowed for the future to drift untethered from current existence. For Sun Ra this makes the future the domain of the impossible. Rationality, progress, and modes of change anchored in evolutionary or developmental ways of thinking no longer point toward a better reality in the future. This required a rewriting of the past and a reimagining of the present in ways that would support a future that could operate either outside the conventional limits of historical causality or despite these limits. The future because the space of the impossible.

Fragment the Second  

This week, while waiting for an evening meeting to start, I read a bit of Rebecca Bryant’s and Daniel M. Knight’s The Anthropology of the Future (2019) which has one fo the most accessible and compelling introductions to the growing interest in the future in the humanities and social sciences. Plus, both scholars have done work in the Mediterranean (Bryant on Cyprus and in Turkey and Knight in Greece). 

The motivation to explore an anthropology (history, archaeology, or sociology) of the future stems largely from the tensions between two attitudes toward the future. On the one hand, we hope that we are in a “late stage” of capitalism, nationalism, or modernism and that the next stage will somehow redeem the horrors that the main stage wrought (massive, global inequality, wars, and technologies with almost infinite capacity to destroy). On the other hand, we are increasingly come to realize that the paradigms established to take care of the future have made it difficult to imagine our way out of the looming existential crises fired by climate change, catastrophic inequality, and a limitless capacity for apocalyptic violence. In this context, there is a growing feeling that the future is foreclosed and that humanity or at least human society will invariably continue to amble toward its ultimate demise. 

It is hard to know what this means for disciplines like history and archaeology which perhaps emphasize the present as a lens through which to view the past more than the future. The 2019 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology offers a few visions of what an archaeology of the future could be, and as much as I like the articles there, I wonder whether we are open enough to new intellectual or discursive tools necessary to imagine a future that is increasingly impossible?

Fragment the Third

Yesterday on a boring treadmill run, I started the read Joy Williams’ latest novel, Harrow (2021). I’ve made it through the first chapter and it’s beautiful and haunting. I will resist the temptation to try to talk about the book already (especially since Williams has a seemingly limitless capacity to surprise), but I will say that there is something profoundly archaeological about the book. Williams interest in things, places, and landscapes, her attention to entropy and site formation, and her ability to think about how the present will appear from the vantage point of a dystopian, but more or less banal near future. 

At this point, I’m not sure whether the richly drawn setting for the story is merely a backdrop or whether it will serve as a character, but I’m intrigued and excited enough to move this book, delicately, from the “read for fun” to the “read for work” list. 

In short, stay tuned and I look forward to blogging about this book (and others) in the future.

A Final Definition: What is the Archaeology of Contemporary America?

One of the more interesting challenges that I’ve faced while revising my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience, is defining more clearly and more positively what the archaeology of contemporary America actually is. My original introduction included a definition nestled in the middle of the typical introductory blather. You can read it here.

This has two problems. First, it wasn’t obvious enough for my reviewers and so a number of readers struggled to recall or identify where it is that I defined the scope of the book. Second, it was fairly weak sauce. I didn’t really offer an argument for why I had defined the field as I did. 

I’ve fixed the first problem by moving this to the very beginning of my introduction so BLAM it hits you in the face. 

I think I’m getting closer to fixing the second problem by offering an argument for what the archaeology of contemporary America is, at least for this book: 

One last thing: this was fucking hard to write. I would love some feedback on it, but be kind and constructive.

The next section will unpack the idea of the archaeology of experience, but I need a bit of time before I start to think about phenomenology, archaeology of the senses, and what it means to experience the present. 

Defining the Archaeology of Contemporary America

The archaeology of the contemporary American experience is a comparative young field and this introduction will attempt to both establish a provisional definition of the archaeology of the contemporary in an American context and situate the distinctly American form of archaeology of the contemporary within the larger context of the field’s history. The final section of the introduction will provide a brief outline of the book itself. Readers will quickly come to realize that similar to many emergent fields the definition of an archaeology of the contemporary American experience is fuzzy and this complicates the our ability to produce a canonical origin story for the field. As a result, this book will not satisfy all readers and an earlier version of this manuscript evoked divergent responses from reviewers and editors alike. As the introduction and the following book will argue, my view of this field seeks to remain within the broad, if fuzzy, boundaries of the contemporary discourse, while also recognizing my own positionality as an archaeologist and an individual.

Archaeologists has a long-standing interest in periodization schemes which serve to structure archaeological chronology and disciplinary and professional specialization Over the last 20 years, however, archaeologists have joined scholars across the humanities and social sciences to critique and challenging our professional chronologies and attitudes toward time and temporality more broadly (for a useful summary see Tamm and Olivier 2019 and Lucas 2021). This expansive and often deeply theoretical discourse offers a complex backdrop to any definition of archaeology of and in the contemporary world. Indeed, the very notion of the contemporary requires particular attention. As Gavin Lucas notes, the concept of the contemporary implies that two events discernable in the archaeological record occurred at the same time. This does not mean, however, that they occurred simultaneously, but rather that the possible chronological span for their occurrence overlapped for some duration. When describing the archaeology of the contemporary world, then, we are describing the archaeology of events, objects, relationships, and situations that overlap in time with the publication of the book. The challenge here, of course, is, as any number of recent archaeological publications have emphasized, objects can have very long lifespans and even ”sealed contexts” often embody artifacts that contemporary at their moment of deposition represent a range of time spans (see Olivier 2015 for the classic treatment of this issue). In other word, we are, in effect, contemporary with the Parthenon in Athens, the Great Zimbabwe, and the White House in Washington, DC as well as the latest iPhone, a 1970s shopping mall, and material from the 1980s in a New Mexico landfill. Of course, no scholar studying the archaeology of the contemporary world would include lengthy discussion of the architectural development of the Parthenon in their work, although they might include a discussion of our reception of the Parthenon or its relationship to the landscape of Athens in the present time (e.g. Hamilakis and Ifantidis 2015). In general, this approach recognizes that there are a plurality of temporalities that exist in the contemporary. Shannon Dawdy famously called this coincidence of multiple temporalities a clockpunk archaeology after the science fiction genre that set in a world featuring the juxtaposition of objects, fashions, and technologies from multiple time period (Dawdy 2010).

This recognition coincides with the growing awareness that the modern present is a distinctive experience. Laurent Olivier, drawing on the work for French cultural historian François Hartog (2015) refers to this situation as presentism and define the present as an era characterized by a radical break both with the past and with the future (Tamm and Olivier 2019). Olivier argued that the contemporary present is bracketed between a past that no longer seems relevant for our current situation and a future that is either completely foreclosed by the impending catastrophe of anthropogenic climate change (or the irrepressible forces of capitalism or a nuclear holocaust) or exceeds our ability to comprehend (for a useful discussion of the future see Bryant and Knight 2019). Thus, archaeology now studies “what the present does to the world” and abandoned earlier efforts to reconstruct the past as the past and replaced it with an effort to reconstruct the past that already exists in the service of the present (Olivier 2019, 30).

This has contributed to Olivier’s interest in how the technological developments of the modern age shape the experience of individuals living today, including their present understanding of their own pasts. Archaeologists of the present period recognize how the global scope and the massive destructive capacities modern technology have transformed the world in ways and at a scale that was inconceivable even a century earlier. Massive mines (Witmore 2021; LeCain 2009), the detritus of global conflicts such as the Cold War (Hanson 2015; McWilliams 2013), climate change induced catastrophes (Dawdy 2006), forced migration (Hamilakis 2016), and the challenges associated with discarding toxic detritus that literally exceeds the imagination (Joyce 2020) characterize an era of supermodernity which transforms the particularity of human existence into a ruinous landscape of non-places indistinguishable from one another (Augé 1993; Gonzalez-Ruibal 2008). The archaeology of the present in this context emphasizes the dehumanizing and destructive capacities of technology and economic regimes in the service of mass consumption. This awareness of the present as a global regime shaped by the massive material forces of 20th and 21st century technology has also transformed our own understanding of time. This expansive view of the present or the contemporary poses certain challenges to archaeology. Not only, as Olivier himself notes, does the dehumanizing and global experience of the 21st century exceed our ability to understand it at the small scale associated with traditional archaeology, but the expansive scope also risks a reductive approach that obfuscates the differences among those who are experiencing the present.

The tension between the global impact of the supermodernity and the diverse ways in which individuals and communities understand and experience their present likewise informs this book. Different groups bring different definitions of the present to our contemporary and our ability as archaeologists to engage with different experiences of time consistently complicates our work. While the concept of contemporaneity allows for multiple overlapping views of the present, it nevertheless requires some absolute framework that constitutes their shared temporality. For the purposes of this book, the last 50 years offers a useful, absolute chronology for the present. The 1970s mark a period where neoliberal economic policies came to the fore both in the US and in Europe. These policies contributed to supermodernity by producing vast new networks of globalized, private, capital that challenges and exceeds the economic, social, and political power of states (Harvey 2005). There are more parochial reasons to identify the last 50 years as a convenient duration for this book. Among American archaeologists, the last 50 years represents a period that falls outside conventional dates for historical significance according to federal guidelines (Yoder 2014). This also happens to coincide with my life experience, as a white, male, academic archaeologist born in 1972. To reinforce this self-referential framework of the contemporary, I have included brief first person preludes to each chapter that serve a reminder of chronological coincidence of my perspectives and experiences with the objects, situations, landscapes, and contexts that this work studies.

This book acknowledges the complicity of academic institutions and archaeology in constructing a view of time that culminated in the modern present and marginalized alternate forms of temporal experience. Johann Fabian referred to this tendency to subordinate other forms of temporal existence to the dominant academic, modern measure of time as allochronism and part of the difficult legacy of anthropology, archaeology, and colonialism (Fabian 1995; Lucas 2021, 110). While this book’s dependence on my own sense of the present will invariably shape its perspective, I will also work to recognize the contemporaneity of multiple views of the present. In practice, this means sometimes viewing the present as sometimes more narrow and sometime broader than the 50 year measure that I propose in this introduction. For diaspora, indigenous, Black, Queer and immigrant communities, the concept of the present might be narrowly circumscribed by the experience of migration or might extend generations through collective memories of an irreducible landscape or the nefarious working of intergeneration trauma. As Jennifer Morgan has noted for the study of the Early American republic, conventional patterns periodization poorly represent the experiences of enslaved Black women (Morgan 2016). Limited views of the present likewise do little for descendants of the Tulsa and Rosewood massacre (González-Tennant 2018; see CHAPTER X) or the Japanese concentration camps (Get Citation xxxx; SEE CHAPTER X) who continue to endure the consequences of lost generational wealth and trauma in the present. Dawdy’s work in post-Katrina New Orleans shows how the devastation of the 2005 hurricane exaggerated the city’s diverse attitudes to the past and present (Dawdy 2016) with Black residents often feeling ambivalent about the city’s ongoing efforts to preserve traditions and places associated with the city’s past. White residents, in contrast, placed even greater value the ability of artifacts and buildings to connect them to the city’s history and their pre-Katrina lives. In this way, were similar to many of the older residents in my community of Grand Forks, North Dakota, which endured a destructive flood in 1997. As Olivier has noted, our inclination to cling fiercely to fragments of the past often manifests our anxiety in the present (Olivier 2019).

If the contemporary includes multiple times, it also consists of multiple spatial extents. As Gavin Lucas has noted, the larger the area covered by a periodization scheme, the more abstract and reductive these schemes tend to become (Lucas 2021, 66). The concept of supermodernity, for example, recognizes the global distribution of non-places such as airports, shopping malls, and open pit mines which exist outside of any local traditions of design or use. An archaeology of workforce housing site in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Patch and at a construction site the Persian Gulf recognizes similar architecture, patterns of use, and adaptation. The interest in global supply chains likewise connects the almost seamless flow of capital to the movement of workers, goods, and material. The export of the American suburb, factory, and military base around the world in the post-World War II decades likewise ensured that supermodernity took on a distinctly American cast. In other words a view of the present defined by the rise of neoliberalism will require a global perspective to understand how and why we experience the contemporary world as we do. For migrants struggling to endure a brutal crossing of the Sonoran Desert, the intensely local experience of the desert and national border policies speak to regressive character of “late sovereignty” for example, which alternates between increasingly permissive policies regarding the movement of money and good and increasingly restrictive policies on the movement of humans (Walker 2003 and CHAPTER X). In this way, it becomes possible to derive examples of the supermodern from North America and the United States, while also exploring how the plurality of temporalities contemporary with the global present also preserve geographically and culturally distinctive experiences. This balance will allow the book to reflect the priorities established by the field of historical archaeology as well as elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences where national specialties remain prominent.

Time and COVID (part 3)

A few months ago, I wrote a pair of posts on time and COVID. I reflected on the way in which working from home, not traveling to conferences, and being away from research sites has shaped our daily and professional realities. I also considered how the lag between COVID tests and their results created a kind of blurry present in which the situation, informed by empirical, scientific evidence, lagged slightly behind our daily experience. 

Today, some 10 months after those first two posts, I want to write a bit about how COVID has shaped my experience of time in another way. (This is absolutely influenced by my reading of Gavin Lucas’s Making Time: The Archaeology of Time Revisited (2021) this weekend.) 

This weekend, I was on a phone call with family members and I found myself uncontrollably impatient. The phone call was wandering from the point, people on the call were thinking out loud, and I was having trouble understanding whether this conversation would have any “actionable” results and what they could be. Needless to say, this did not make the conversation very enjoyable.

If this was the only time that I felt this impatience, I’d be willing to chalk it up to sibling relations which probably encourage all of us to regress a bit to our childhood roles. It’s not. At a faculty meeting a few weeks before I also felt impatient with my colleagues for no particular reason. The meeting was reasonable well run and no one was really wasting time. In fact, we had a pleasantly uncluttered agenda which gave us time to discuss some more complicated issues in a relaxed way. This is an opportunity that is all too rare in our department where we tend to be efficient to a fault. These two recent incidents have only reinforced a general feeling of impatience and of heightened time awareness.

To be transparent, I tend to be someone who is prone to a kind of exaggerated awareness of time. I collect watches, for example, and almost compulsively check the time on my computer screen, phone, and watch. I regularly note the time it takes to complete daily tasks from walking the dogs to my regular jogs, my drive to campus, and my writing and reading. Each book has a time per page rate that I note as I read and adjust over the first 20 to 50 pages to a representative average. I monitor carefully — almost compulsively— how long it takes me to grade a paper and then create a kind of rolling average that helps me understand how long grading midterms, for example, will take. I tend to be punctual and I like to do most tasks on time.

That said, I have always been able to control my fixation on time and relax into the moment during meetings, conversations, and various social encounters. Why was my control suddenly slipping?

It occurred to me that by working from home, the rhythm of work had increasingly intruded into the rhythm of non work. This isn’t the same as saying that work itself had intruded into non-working time or space. I feel like I’ve been able to manage my work/non-work balance fairly effectively during COVID (or as effectively as I ever have). Instead, what I’ve been encountering is the structure of work time invading the structure of non work time. 

It is easy enough to blame this on things like Zoom. On Zoom the meeting tends to start when the meeting starts and conclude when the meeting is over. In most meetings, even very efficiently run ones, there are opportunities for casual chit-chat or banter before and after the agenda. In my experience, most Zoom meetings lack the fuzzy starts and fuzzy ends because genuine social interaction via Zoom is stilted and uncomfortable. It’s hard to talk to the person “next to you” and inquire about their weekend or semester without it becoming the public epicenter of conversation. As a result, meetings get right to business and conclude when the agenda is over.

Efforts to use Zoom for more social get togethers was kind of fun at first, but then quickly disappointing. The time limits on non-institutional Zoom accounts meant that most social get togethers were “on the clock” and that was mostly for the best as the interactions often were just stilted and weird. These social uses of Zoom, however, did reinforce the structure of Zoom time, however.

The tendency to work from home invariably has led to work related activities, whether teaching or meetings or other scheduled things, abutting home time more directly. For example, I’ve been more and more willing to attend meetings on the weekends, not because I want my weekend interrupted by a Zoom call, but because for me weekends are a conveniently unstructured space that can easily accommodate an hour meeting (especially if it’s for something that I care about rather than a professional obligation). On a weekdays, I’ve noticed that the buffers offered by a commute or other transitional rituals have contracted or became unnecessary or inaccessible. As a result, the increasingly punctual routine of online professional interaction started, invariably, to structure non-work related activities as well. I realize that this might have been the pre-COVID reality for people who live busier lives than I do, but I only encountered this changing rhythm when the structure of my online COVID professional life inserted itself into the space of my non-work life. I suspect this has partly made me feel increasingly growing impatience with things that do not follow a well-ordered agenda. 

I wonder whether other people have felt like their sense of time has changed during COVID. Have other people felt like our days have become more relentlessly structure and activities previously allowed to wander have now become increasingly determined by the insistent arrival of scheduled events?

Has the ambiguity surrounding our present (exaggerated by the time lag between COVID test results and our face-to-face interactions and collective sense of security) led us to retake control by exerting more and more rigid schedules on our days? Perhaps this is also intensified by a sense of the future which seems shaped by the ebb and flow of the pandemic, the infection rate of COVID variants, and the effectiveness of vaccines, boosters, and social policies designed to mitigate its impact. As our sense of the present and future become blurry, we seek to hold onto all the more tightly what we can control. That means, Zoom meeting start on time and end on time and wandering conversations and lazy afternoons are best left for a situation where there is more certainty surrounding their costs.      

Music Monday: Dr. Lonnie Smith

I have a weird affection for people and institutions that use of the name “Doctor” in slightly inappropriately or unconventional ways. I attribute this to growing up watching the 1980s Philadelphia 76ers with their star player Dr. Julius Irving. I remember how exciting it was to discover that on the road between the site of Koutsopetria and downtown Larnaka there was a food truck called the Doctor of Hunger (Γιατρός της πείνας). And, I love that for much of his career the soul jazz organist Lonnie Smith went by the name Dr. Lonnie Smith.

He also wore a turban for some reason which he connected, apparently, to Sun Ra’s propensity to wear odd hats.

Every few years I get drawn back to his music and when I heard that he had died on September 28th, it was easy to take a dive into his recordings. His 1970s Blue Note albums have perhaps attracted the most attention, especially 1968s Think, which includes the grooviest version of “Three Blind Mice” that you’ll ever hear. It’s useful to pain his Blue Note recordings in the late 1960s and early 1970s with his work as a sideman with Lou Donaldson around the same time including the iconic Midnight Creeper from 1968 and Everything I Play is Funky from 1970 (with Blue Mitchell on trumpet and cornet), which includes a deep performance of “Over the Rainbow,” which I just love. Finally, Smith’s only recording for Creed Taylor (on their soul jazz oriented Kudu imprint), Mama Wailer (1971) is fantastic as well. The first two tracks show Latin influence on Smith’s playing and composition, while the last two tracks just roll (especially his cover of “I Feel the Earth Move”).   

One of the more interesting things about Lonnie Smith (at least to me) is that he favored small neighborhood venues throughout the 1970s rather than the usual itinerary of jazz clubs. I suspect this both reflects the changing landscape of jazz during this time, as some of the better known clubs struggled (e.g. the Five Spot, Birdland, or Slug’s Saloon) or diversified from jazz into other kinds of performances (e.g. the Village Gate), as well as the popular character of his music. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t really have as many of his live performances from this period as we would would like. Blue Note, however, did release one recording from this era in 1995, recorded at the Club Mozambique in Detroit in 1970.

This got me thinking about projects like the Detroit Sound Conservancy who seek to preserve and conserve the legacy of music in Detroit and the Music Origins Project which seeks the more modest goal of geolocating important venues. The note that Conelius Watt’s Club Mozambique was just the kind of neighborhood venue that Lonnie Smith enjoyed playing. Although the club burned down in 2015 (and the club had moved on from live music by then), the list of musicians who had played at the club in the 1970s is a veritable who’s who of soul jazz, soul, funk and R&B. The only two albums made from recordings there appear to be Lonnie Smith’s 1970 date and Grant Green’s 1971 date at the club. 

It’s interesting to listen to these two albums back to back. While they both are masterpieces of the early 1970s soul jazz idiom, I got to wondering how they reflected the venue where the musicians played and the social, economic, and political context of the Black community in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (As an aside, I’m beyond excited for Krysta Ryzewski’s book Detroit Remains: Archaeology and Community Histories of Six Legendary Places  to appear next year!). In other words, can we do an archaeology of a particular venue at a particular moment through the careful listening to live recordings? As a number of critics have observed, Grant Green’s performance at Club Mozambique was quite different from his near contemporary performance at Cliche Lounge in Newark, New Jersey. The former feels just a bit looser and maybe more engaged than his better known performance in New Jersey? Maybe this is just something that I’m imagining?

Whatever the case, both Green’s and Smith’s album from Club Mozambique are worth a listen. Both do more than just capture the sound of a time and place in the history of 1970s jazz music. Both albums are good music and what better way to honor the memory of the late Dr. Lonnie Smith than to listen to some of his finest performances.    

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s a rainy Fall Friday, and it just feels right. I have an immeasurable stack of grading, writing, and reading to do this weekend, but I am also looking forward to the cooler temperatures of a proper fall. 

Plus, there’s plenty of fall entertainment on tap. Penn State facing Iowa in a make-or-break game for both teams. The Formula 1 guys are back in Istanbul for a second year in a row (and Sainz and Hamilton will be starting from well down the grid with engine penalties). The NASCAR crew is at the Roval in Charlotte. Most importantly, though, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury meet for the third time with the WBC, Ring, and Lineal heavyweight championship in the line. Fury is favored (-270) and I suspect he’ll take care of business in six or seven rounds.

Even if the perfect blend of sport and work isn’t to your taste, do check out these quick hits and varia:

Sleeping

Three Things Thursday: Making Life Harder, Publishing, and Lineal Champions

It’s almost mid-semester and that always puts me in a bit of a reflective mood. The lovely fall weather and some thoughtful colleagues doesn’t hurt either. So this week, I’m offering a little trio of three things Thursday meditation.

Thing the First

One of the things that I tell my students consistently is not to make their lives any harder than they need to be. Many of my students are carrying heavy course loads, working jobs, and have other family and personal responsibilities on top of the every day pressures of taking classes during a pandemic. In response to this, I’ve really focused on managing student workloads, particularly in lower division classes, and encouraging students to consider how best to use their time to get out of a class what they want to get out of it. In other words, do not do things the hard way because they seems like the best way.

Of course, in my professional life, I consistently do things the hard way. In fact, I seem to consistently and knowingly make my life harder than it needs to be by filling up my time with projects that reflect my interests rather than my priorities. More than that, I seem to get some kind of weird pleasure or at least excitement about navigating the hardest path and pushing myself to endure the frustrations and challenges that come not from the work itself but the arrangement of the work. This has me wondering whether my advice to students to stay on the easy path is good. Maybe more of my students are like me than I know?

Thing the Second

I’ve been working on a little Op-Ed piece for Near Eastern Archaeology with my fellow ASOR book series editor Jennie Ebeling. It’s still a work in progress, but we basically advocate for an increased emphasis on digital publishing in ASOR while acknowledging that there are certain challenges to this. 

This got me thinking about how the publishing ecosystem is a bit perverse. On the one hand, there seems to be consistent pressure on faculty to publish. Over the past few years this pressure might even be increasing at least among my colleagues in Europe. As a result, there seems to be a constant stream of publications in a growing number of journals and book series. These, in turn, require universities to constantly increase their library budgets to capture a productive share of the academic output. At the same time, there appears to be persistent barriers to supporting open access publishing at scale. These aren’t just economic barriers (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but also professional ones which discourage scholars from publishing in open access journals and book series. Anther colleague pointed out that in many fields in the humanities, there are even biases against finding subventions for publication to make them open access or more widely available. The result is that universities have created a system where they are scrambling to provide support for the publications that they push their faculty to produce. A significant slice of the revenue that this cycle creates is siphoned off to private investors further depleting public resources that could go for research, teaching, and in-house publishing.

Thing the Third

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that this weekend is the Wilder-Fury III. This is the third heavyweight fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. The ramp up to the fight has been pretty heated and, like any major heavy-weight fight, the world feels like it stops when these two massive men step into the ring. 

In the fragmented world of heavyweight boxing, only one belt is on the line: the WBC belt. The fight will also be for The Ring heavyweight championship. More importantly (for me at least) is that the belt will be for the Lineal Heavyweight championship. I think the lineal championship, in particular, is what makes boxing – particularly in the so-called standard divisions – so appealing to me. The idea of the lineal championship is that only ONE guy is champion and the only way to be champion is the beat the guy who was the previous champion. If a champion retires, then the championship goes to the highest ranked contender ideally after the 2 and 3 ranked contenders fight. At times, then, the lineal championship can lay open or be contested. Obviously, in this era with multiple ranking systems, sanctioning bodies, and championships, it is often hard to confirm the real lineal champion but with heavyweights there’s a sense that Tyson Fury, after his victory over Wladimir Klitschko (who, in turn, won the lineal championship with his victory over Ruslan Chagaev, who was the third ranked heavyweight in the world at a time when Klitschko was ranked second; there was no lineal champion at that moment because Lennox Lewis had retired).

In any event, I like the concept of a lineal champion. It reminds me of Papal Succession and other formal lineages. I also like that in boxing – at least in theory – requires a fighter to defeat the champion in order to be the champion. In other sports, every season starts with a level playing field and while I get that this generates some excitement, in the world of free agency, there’s a lack of continuity that boxing at least seeks to rectify with its somewhat arcane system of succession. 

Rewriting the Introduction

This week, I started the painful process of working on revisions on my book manuscript: The Archaeology of the Contemporary American ExperienceI’ve posted a good bit of the book manuscript already to this blog and despite my awareness of my own hubris, I was not dissatisfied with it.

My series editors and some of the reviewers found it less compelling. As a result, I’m working on what will probably prove to be a major revision. The first step is revising the introduction. It is clear that the readers did not find my definition of the archaeology of the contemporary world particularly helpful. In fact, it’s place toward the end of my original introduction make it sufficiently invisible that some readers couldn’t readily find it. In my revisions this week, I decided to move my definition to the beginning of my introduction and then unpack the definition with more nuance and contextualize the definition in the history of the field throughout the rest of the introduction.

I have to admit that I’m not very satisfied with this, but, as I continually remind myself, books are not about what satisfies me as a writer, but what satisfies my audience as a reader!! Hopefully, by the end of this process, an interested reader will have the opportunity to compare my original manuscript with my revised text and find the latter to be a superior product.

Introduction

Prelude

In April of 2014, I stood with a team of archaeologists at the side of a landfill at the edge of the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. A film crew had invited us to participate in the excavation and we were surrounded by contractors, consultants, minor celebrities, and a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers as a massive bucket loader tore into the stratigraphy of a abandoned landfill and extracted loads of household discard from the 1980s. The goal of this excavation was to confirm the urban legend that the video game maker Atari had dumped truckloads of game cartridges in the Alamogordo landfill in 1983 as it struggled to remain solvent. The excavation attracted international attention and was the climax of a documentary film that framed the dig for the Atari games as the excavation of an era in both video game development and American consumer culture (Reinhard 2015).

Some 350 miles to the west lies the Sonoran Desert. Each year hundreds of undocumented migrants attempt to cross this arid and unforgiving terrain to enter the United States. Jason De León’s Undocumented Migration Project documented and analyzed the material culture and forensic evidence for migrant border crossing. He interweaves archaeological evidence with ethnographic accounts of the immigrants who made the harrowing journey to cross this lethal landscape. The goal of this work was both to humanize the cost of national borders and immigration policies which rely, in part, on the Sonoran desert as a deterrent. By documenting traces of immigration across this landscape, De León’s work reveals how U.S. policy and deeply seated attitudes conspire to push the experience of our inhumane immigration policy to the margins of American consciousness. The resulting book, the Land of Open Graves (2015) is a penetrating and vivid critique of U.S. border policy and demonstrates how material culture reveals a tragic aspect of the American experience that are meant to be invisible.

In contrast, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s study of contemporary New Orleans considers the experience of time’s circuitous route through the city’s past. Her book, Patina (2016), explored how residents of post-Katrina New Orleans both experienced and understood the multiple temporalities visible in the historical fabric of the city, in heirlooms, and in the community’s vibrant rituals. In Dawdy’s hands, the visibility of patina offers a material counter argument to our faith in modern, linear progress which always values of the new over the old. In its place, she introduces the reader to the complicated and recursive history of New Orleans which embodies an experience that seems to escape the hegemonic reach of contemporary consumer culture. The value that New Orleans residents put on patina parallels in some way that the value that collectors put on the stench associated with the dirty and broken Atari cartridges excavated from a New Mexico landfill[ Link this to the first paragraph on Atari more clearly.].

Some 1,500 miles to the north, in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota, driller, pipeline “cats,” “fishers,” geologists, and even a few curious archaeologists gather for a Southern style meal in the dinning hall of a temporary “man camp” built to house the influx of people during the 21st century Bakken oil boom. Some of the units across the region installed to house temporary labor had sheltered families in Louisiana who had lost their homes from Katrina. Transported from the patinated disaster site of post-Katrina of Orleans to the boom-time contingency of North Dakota’s Bakken, the reuse of these trailers reflects a quintessentially modern landscape shaped by the flow of people, capital, and fossil fuels. The role of extractive industries in accelerating anthropogenic climate change further connects displacement caused by catastrophic weather events with the experience of oil workers in remote landscapes.

Despite their different contexts, the archaeology of patina in New Orleans and the archaeology of the contemporary Bakken oil boom both represent opportunities to interrogate the experiences of both American capitalism and global climate change. The archaeology of undocumented migration in the Sonoran Desert offers a distinctly American window to the tragic experience of transnational migration perpetrated by ponderous persistence of the modern nation-state. The Atari excavation, for all its sensationalism and frivolity, reflects the key role that technology – particular video games – played in both our collective experiences of childhood and subsequent sense of nostalgia. These contexts create a past in the present which bring together the ephemeral, the hidden, and the overlooked with the visible, material features that define the contemporary American experience. As Richard Gould observed in one of the earliest arguments for an archaeology of the contemporary world: “modern material culture studies have shown us that we are not always what we seem, even to ourselves” (Gould 1981, 65).

Defining the Field

The archaeology of the contemporary American experience exists at a dynamic intersection of traditional practices and innovative ways of understanding our relationship with the past and present. This means that the range of contributions present in this book sketch out a definition of archaeology of the contemporary that is both expansive and provisional. The work presented here ranges from systematic excavations and surveys to more casual efforts to document the materiality of the present. The understanding of archaeology reflects the cross pollination of the discipline by other social sciences such as the ethnographic practices associated with sociology and cultural anthropology as well as the approaches associated with critical theory and developed by the humanities. For example, this book will explore the influence of sociologists such as Daniel Miller on how we understand contemporary consumer culture and identity. It will also explore the intersection digital archaeology and the field of media archaeology, which is informed more by a Foucauldian understanding of the concept of archaeology (Foucault) than one associated with disciplinary practice. This expansive array of approaches reflects an effort to remain true to the development of the archaeology of the contemporary world as well as current practices.

The chronological definition of the contemporary world is similarly complex. To emphasize the contemporaneity of my experience, as a white, male, academic archaeologist born in 1972, I have included brief first person preludes to each chapter that serve a brief reminders of chronological coincidence of my perspectives and experience with the objects, situations, landscapes, and contexts that this work studies. My own view of the contemporary world has less to do with some narrow period centered on the present, and more to do with the complex economic, political, and social conditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This period saw the ascendence of neoliberal economic programs, the development of the internet and greater access to digital technologies, an accelerated pace of globalization with the end of the Cold War, and a growing anxiety surrounding the human wrought changes in the environment. This conveniently coincides with material that falls within the last 50 years and outside of the conventional (and legal) definitions of protected heritage in the United States. At the same time, I recognize that my positionality informs my experience of time and contemporaneity and my experience of contemporary political, economic, and social regimes. For diaspora communities, indigenous communities, Black communities, and recent immigrants, as just a few examples, the concept of the contemporary might be narrowly circumscribed by the experience of migration or might extend generations through collective memories of an irreducible landscape or the nefarious working of intergeneration trauma. This book acknowledges the complicity of academic institutions and archaeology in promoting the linear view of progress which served often to overwrite alternate forms of temporal experience. While this book’s dependence on my own sense of the contemporary will invariably shape its perspective, I will also make efforts to recognize the work of Shannon Lee Dawdy, Laurent Olivier, and Alfredo González-Ruibal in appreciating the role of the most distant past in the present and how the interplay between the past and the contemporary complicates the persistent linearity of the modern narrative.

As for the geographic definition of this work, most of the examples will derive from North America and the United States more narrowly. In this way, the book recognizes and seeks to trace a distinctive character of the American experience in way that reflects the priorities present in the field of historical archaeology (as well as elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences where national specialties remain prominent). At the same time, trends in globalization and the increasingly fluid movement of goods, capital, and individuals over the last 50 years has introduced significant complexity to traditional definitions of historically constituted regions. The concept of “late sovereignty” (Walker 2003) for example, articulates the increasingly blurred boundaries that define the authority of sovereign states in the 21st century. The political and economic power of multinational corporations and the reach of the internet across national boundaries contributes to a declining sense of geographically defined cultures and experiences. The rise of non-descript non-places at a global scale and the mass movement of populations displaced by political and economic forces has complicate our expectation of distinctly national experience.