Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: A Completed Draft

I’ve spent the last three months toiling over a paper that I’m scheduled to give at the European Archaeological Association meetings in September. I’ve posted parts of it here on the blog and gotten feedback from various folks. My panel is supposed to pre-circulate their papers today, and I do have a draft, but it’s pretty rough around the edges.

But since I’m pre-circulating it anyway, I thought I might as well post it here on my blog too. You can download it here, or go and mark it up using Hypothes.is here

The paper is for a panel on transhumanism, which I probably should have focused on more fully. Instead, I conflated transhumanism with a watered down version of Donna Harraway’s idea of the cyborg and reflected very broadly on the role of technology in shaping how we produce archaeological knowledge. 

The paper ended up being a bit more conservative than I would have liked, but that is probably true both to the “slow” paradigm that I’ve embraced for archaeology and, more obviously, the work of Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, which tend toward the explicitly un-progressive. That being said, I think there is a space for reflecting on how epistemologies, ontologies, methodologies, and the organization of disciplinary practice interact, and my paper parallels, perhaps in a not too distant way, some of the recent work being done to reconsider the value of antiquarian practices. Some of these scholars have seen antiquarianism as an avenue for understanding un-modern (and anti-modern) ways of producing archaeological knowledge that are, at least partly, free from the political and social burdens of modernity and colonialism

That being said, I don’t think that I get everything right. For example, I do see the recent interest in shifting the dominant metaphor in archaeology from excavation and revealing to surface survey and assemblage building as a way to integrate a wider and more diverse range of voices into process of archaeological knowledge making. In fact, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s and Olivier Laurent’s works do just that by showing how distinctive views of time, narrative building, values, and relationships contribute to place-making practices at the local level that operate outside disciplinary methods and arguments. At the same time, I see in the kind of assemblage building the potential for greater fragmentation in disciplinary practices which echoes the way in which digital tools create networks of independent devices linked by data broken into discrete fragments. 

In any event, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t get this paper all right, but as always I’ll appreciate any comments that you’re willing to offer. 

 

 

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care (Part 2)

Over the last three months I’ve been fretting and toiling about a paper that I’m writing for European Archaeological Association meeting in September that is due to pre-circulate on August 1. I promised myself to have a completed draft done by July 15, not so much to fulfill some vague Germanic need to have things done on time, but because I was struggling to wrangle my ideas into something that made sense. I posted the first part of the paper on Monday and here’s the second section. It’s rough and a bit raw (and maybe bad). As always I appreciate both constructive and destructive criticism.

As the organizers of this panel know well, transhumanism offers a way to consider the interplay between technology and performance in society (e.g. Haraway 1984) and, more specifically, in archaeology. It also offers a vague roadmap to anticipate the social and disciplinary implications of new approaches to producing archaeological knowledge. Indeed, for most of the later 20th century archaeologists have embraced methodology and seen knowledge making as an explicit relationship between particular techniques, tools, and situations. In this way, archaeological work does not end at the limits of our bodies, but extends reciprocally through technology, techniques, and social organization to create the hybrid space of archaeological knowledge making.

I like to think of the resulting archaeology is far more superficial in the sense that Rodney Harrison has suggested with the dominant metaphor of excavation giving way to the production of surface assemblages consisting of people, objects, tools, and techniques. For authors like Shannon Lee Dawdy, the awareness of how assemblages produce meaningful pasts involves more than simply dutiful documentation and analysis of archaeological work but also recognizing the relationship between field work, local knowledge, ritual activities, and various pre- and anti-modern ways of locating, narrating, and producing social value for artifacts (Dawdy 2016). For Olivier (2012), this speaks to the chaotic nature of time and memory from which the discipline of archaeological seeks to produce an order, but not the only order possible, useful, or meaningful. In this context, the rather linear practice of stratigraphic excavation with its institutional, disciplinary, and performative underpinnings gives way to the raucous and uneven performance of punk rock music which often eschews expertise, barriers to access, and specialized knowledge. There’s an immediacy to it and an explicitly improvised character to even recorded punk music. To use Illich’s terms, the interaction between tools, performance, methods, and individuals is convivial.

My arguments for a slow archaeology shares an interest in conviviality when it seeks to privilege unstructured or less structured engagements with the countryside, embodied field practices like illustrating and note taking by hand, and avoiding the fragmentation of archaeological information into smaller bit of “data.” On the one hand, I remain optimistic that such views of the use of digital technology in archaeology are likely to be superseded as scholars continue to unpack the complex relationship between archaeologists and technology. The transhuman archaeologist is much more likely to recognize the interplay between ourselves and the various digital ”cognitive artifacts” that expand our ability to think about, recognize, or produce archaeological objects (Huggett 2017).

On the other hand, a transhuman archaeology will also transform the social organization of archaeological practice. Digital technology, for example, whatever its integrative potential, relies, in part, on the industrialist and Taylorist approach of dividing complex tasks into rather more simple ones as a step toward aggregating the results of these tasks into completed products. While the linearity of the assembly line may appear outmoded in our digitally networked world, its efficiency speaks to a common goal of fragmenting work as a way to mitigate differences in experience and expertise. Various crowd-sourced research projects (e.g. Sarah Parcak work) have shown how digital tools have produced non-linear approaches to complex archaeological problems. Whatever the value of this kind of archaeological work it is hard not to see it as a kind of digital approach to industrial logic, and as a result, and bringing a distinct form of deskilling (or at very least “reskilling“) to certain kinds of archaeological work.

I recognize that by following the logic of Ellul, Illich, and other anti-modernists, I am predisposed my to worry about the use of remote, structured or simplified recording digital recording interfaces, the ease of point-and-click data manipulation, or the use of software to synthesize unstructured data such as generated by digital photography into 3D structure-from-motion images (Morgan and Knight 2017). I do, however, think that the adoption of digital tools and the understanding of digital technologies at both a conceptual and applied level is not merely exchanging one set of skills for another (pace Roosevelt et al.), but also simplifying (and deskilling) certain elements of archaeological work.

Shifting from an assembly line model to a digital model that allows for more dynamic (and remote) access to data production and analysis will transform the organization of archaeological work. The coincidence between an approach to archaeological grounded in assemblages of individuals, objects, places, and pasts, and the democratizing character of digital practices demonstrates allows us to accommodate, but also replace certain kinds of specialists with a computer algorithm or commercial software. The incorporation of algorithms, software, digital tools, and new techniques into archaeological practice brings with them their distinctive logic of practice to field work and analysis.

Jacques Ellul’s work stressed how efficiency and specialization are bound up in the fuzzy concept of technique which he locates as the driving force behind human decision making. For Ellul, technique is modern desire to work efficiently as an end unto itself. Archaeology, on the one hand, as a discipline that emerged, at least in part, alongside industrial practices has always privileged efficiency in organization, documentation, and work. This is not to say that individual archaeologists only and always privileged efficiency, of course, but the very concept of specialization in approaches, methods, procedures, and experiences represents a kind of technique that has played a historically significant role in the production of archaeological knowledge. Practices that marked an individuals specialized skills from carefully maintained notebooks of the trench supervisor or the intricate illustrations of the architect today represent some of the very fields that digital practices propose to refine and improve.

As people like Eric Kansa have noted, the impulse to use digital tools to produce more efficient data collection, as an example, anticipated the recent fascination with “Big Data” well in advance of the consistent demonstration of its results (Kansa 2017; Bevan 20xx). This is not to say that big data will not lead to important breakthroughs in our field, but to suggest that the efficiency possible in digital data collection, analysis, and dissemination, has outpaced our ability to draw significant conclusions. As Roosevelt and others cleverly quipped, digitization is an alternative to destruction in the context of field practices, but this presupposes that this data can produce meaningful interpretation.

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Over the last three months I’ve been fretting and toiling about a paper that I’m writing for European Archaeological Association meeting in September that is due to pre-circulate on August 1. I promised myself to have a completed draft done by July 15, not so much to fulfill some vague Germanic need to have things done on time, but because I was struggling to wrangle my ideas into something that made sense.

So here’s my a draft of my overly long introduction to the paper. Feedback is, as always, welcome:

My paper today is yet another effort to come to terms with my anxiety about the emergence of a transhuman, digital archaeology. To be clear from the start, I consider myself a bit of a digital archaeology and a digital native. I can’t remember, for example, living in a house without a computer and my role on archaeological projects has always involved data management and GIS. Over the last few years, I’ve also started an open access press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, that privileges digital downloads over print and has featured a number of open access books that critically examine digital practices in archaeology.

My interest today is a speculative and theoretical and instead of focusing on the immediate context of field practices, I’d like to think about technology in archaeology in a more historical and expansive way. This will, of course, make many of my generalizations easy enough to dismiss with examples for actual field practices or implementation. These to me are reasons for optimism and perhaps reflect the advanced state of critical engagement with the way that digital tools are shaping the discipline. At the same time, I do think that long trajectory of digital practices in archaeology (and in our transhuman culture) remains unclear as folks like Jeremey Huggett have recognized (Huggett, Reilly, Lock 2018).

My small part in this conversation, which I shamelessly plug in the title of this paper, involved publishing a collection of reflections on ”punk archaeology” (Caraher et al. 2014) and, more recently, a couple of short articles that use the popular ”slow movement“ as an imperfect, but nevertheless accessible and useful lens for critically engaging digital archaeology (Caraher 2015, 2016) . Punk archaeology offered a view of archaeology grounded in radical and performative inclusivity, and slow archaeology considered the implications of a particular strand of scholarship that celebrated the increases in efficiency, accuracy, and precision associated with digital field practices. While both efforts have received substantive and thoughtful critiques that have demonstrated the limits to these analogies (archaeology is LIKE punk or LIKE the slow movement; see Richardson 2016; Graham 2017), I still hope that they offer some useful perspectives on the relationship between how archaeology produces the past in the present and how this shapes the organization of our discipline. It is the intersection of epistemological (and ontological) concerns and professional and disciplinary concerns that has heightened my sense of anxiety concerning archaeology’s digital future.

Some of this anxiety almost certainly comes from my growing interest in the works Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul, mid-century Christian anarchists, who wrote critically on the rise of modern institutions and technology. Without over simplifying and eliding their different perspectives, both men saw the shift toward modern practices as profoundly disruptive to traditional values and a sense of community.

Ellul’s is perhaps the more problematic for considering archaeological practice. He suggests that the rise of rationality and technology, which he summarizes in the term “technique” after 1750 severed the careful attention of the individual from work itself (Ellul 1964). In its place emerged ”technique” which had its own abstract logic that was closely tied to the need for efficiency. Thus, in Ellul’s writing, emergence of technique in the place of individual care marked the decline in human autonomy as individual choices in how to work gave way to the inescapably logic of efficiency as the organizing principle structuring all human relations and relationships between humans and their tools. As Jennifer Alexander noted in her historical study of efficiency, “efficiency remains an iconic mantra in the high-tech industries,” and I’d argue efficiency remains a key consideration for how archaeology is organized and uses tools (Alexander 2008). In fact, a recent conference and publication dedicated to digital tools in field work, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future, was laced with the discussions of efficiency and terms like workflow. Among the most widely cited and read articles from Journal of Field Archaeology is Christopher Roosevelt’s (and team) thorough presentation of the digital workflow from their project in southwest Turkey.

Ivan Illich shared many of Ellul’s concerns and proposed that modernity, technology, and the state disrupted the conviviality that existed in the premodern world and among premodern societies (Illich 1975). For Illich, conviviality represented the opposite of modern productivity (with its interest in speed and efficiency) and emphasized the free, unstructured, and creative interaction between individuals and between individuals and their environment. For Illich, like Ellul, the use of technology does not result in a society more free, but one that is increasingly bereft of the conditions that allow for creativity as the need for efficiency and speed create a kind of dominant logic in practice. (One can see in this tension, for example, the curiosity driven and open-ended nature of basic science in contrast to the narrower more practically focused work of applied science (Pickering 1995).)

Archaeology, of course, has always been a hybrid discipline with certain aspects of practice grounded in the world of craft and others in the world of industrial (and increasingly post-industrial) practice. Michael Shanks and others have shown that archaeology, “has never been modern” or at least entirely modern as it integrates industrial and pre-industrial practices (Shanks and Maguire 1995; Shanks 2012). Recent efforts to champion the use of digital tools within archaeology have tended, however, at least on the practical level, to celebrate their ability to improve the aspects of archaeological work that tend not to align with industrial paradigms such interpretative description, scientific illustration, and the careful study of excavated artifacts. This suggests to me that the quest to improve efficiency in archaeological practice extends equally to modern and pre-modern practices in the discipline.

Illich’s and Ellul’s critiques of technology fit only awkwardly with much recent scholarship, of course. Efficiency itself has become increasingly regarded as a problematic term deeply embedded in practice and the coincidence of human and material agency (e.g. Shove 2017). Bruno Latour and others have demonstrated that any effort to unpack the complexity of energy in any system — social, mechanical, environmental, et c. — requires abstract acts of purification that define and separate energy and effects from their complex network of entangled relationships and practices (Latour 1993; Shove 2017, 7-8). This work, on the one hand, echos recent studies of both ancient and modern technology that have challenged tradition views of agency and argued that objects and individuals co-create the world. This greater attention to the interaction between individuals and objects has provided a compelling theoretical framework for understanding the interplay of technology, tools, objects, and agency in the construction of archaeological knowledge.

On the other hand, this work has only just begun, I suspect, to inform the thriving conversation on the impact of digital tools on the organization of archaeological practice (although see Pickering 1995; Taylor et al. 2018), the nature of archaeological skills and expertise, and issues of archaeological preservation and publication (Huggett 2017). In fact, changing views of agency in the world have created new views of ethics in archaeological practice as well as in the social organization of discipline (e.g. Dawdy 2016). Perhaps this entangled view of the world gives the work of Illich and Ellul new relevance for archaeologist concerned with the social issue of disciplinary practice across the field.

Three Things Thursday: A Wesley College Coda, Reviewing Poetry, and Narrating Atari

I have three little things today that are swirling around in my head like the projected snowfall for later this morning. None of them are particularly profound, but they all might be something later. Ya heard it here first, folks.

1. Abiding and Corwin/Larimore Halls. This is coda for my post yesterday on the current status of the Wesley College Documentation Project. Over spring break we cajoled Mike Wittgraf to perform a little concert and recording in Corwin and Larimore Halls. The songs we selected were somber in tone and included the well-known hymn “Abide with Me.” The title of this hymn, of course, come from John 15:4-6 which is the start of the Passion.

Yesterday in a faculty meeting, I was fumbling for a word to describe an individual who stays with the dying, and a colleague suggested the word “abider” (our faculty meetings can go to some dark places). I wasn’t familiar with this term, but a few Googles later, it indeed shows that it has some modest currency in contemporary language. This got me thinking about our roles as archaeologists in documenting Wesley College.

Are we working as abiders allowing the buildings to tell their stories before they’re gone? I know this sounds hopeless sentimental, but I’ve been struck how even my short time around these buildings has allowed me a much greater appreciation for not only their architecture and spaces, but also the stories of the individuals whose lives intersected with these buildings over the century of their existence. 

“Change and Decay in all around I see, O Thou who changest not abide with me.” 

2. Poetry and Slow Reading. As editor of North Dakota Quarterly, I get books for review on a weekly basis. As a publisher of my own small press, I know the important role of circulating books for review. At the same time, not all works that come across our desk at NDQ are equally worthy of review, and it is another challenge entirely to match the book with an appropriate reviewer. As a result, we usually have a little pile of books that have not gone out for review yet and this pile has only grown larger as NDQ has shifted its attention to reorganizing and preparing for our shift from in-house publishing to being published by University of Nebraska Press. 

On Wednesday, I hang out in the NDQ office and during little breaks the back issues of NDQ and the pile of books to review beckon to me. So I’ve taken to picking up books of poetry or short fiction and … gasp… just reading them. Mostly I feel not qualified to judge their quality, but recently I’ve started to think that maybe I can speak about this material from a distinctive perspective. After all, as a non-poet, non-poetry reader, and never-taken-a-college-level-English-class perhaps I could offer an “everyperson” view of various little books.

It’s tempting to start to write a little review series on the books that we receive. They’d be less critical review and more impressionistic and spontaneous. They might be fun to write and at least a little entertaining to read.

3. Contemporaneity and Archaeology. Over the last few days, I’ve returned to long gestating (marinating?) article on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. The article was clumsy and poorly positioned, I think, but as I’ve let it rest for a bit, I do think that it has one thing to offer and that is a meditation on the issue of contemporaneity in archaeology (and particular in the work of archaeology of the contemporary world). As I have noted before, the assumption of the “broken tradition” between our world today and the world that we’re studying has, for centuries, allowed both history and archaeology to position the past in a place susceptible for study. By assuming the contemporaneity of the archaeologist and the archaeology, however, we disrupt this tidy arrangement and make space to recognize that the archaeologist and the archaeology are both enmeshed (or entangled) in a dense web of common relationships. Rodney Harrison has argued that these relationships produce what he has called surface assemblages. I’d like to add that understanding contemporaneity in surface assemblages and between surface assemblages and the archaeologist, opens and maybe even requires new forms of narration that accommodates the various overlapping webs of meaning making that such contemporaneity recognizes. For example, it will be increasingly difficult to approach archaeological knowledge making as an impersonal enterprise removed – through either a broken tradition or an objective scientific lens – from the person of the archaeologist and the larger culture. How do we embrace this freedom from conventional practices?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing the Past in Byzantium and North Dakota

It was a happy coincidence that I read Sharon Gerstel and co.’s recent article in Hesperia on the acoustics of two well-known churches in Thessaloniki on the same week that I’ve arranged for a little concert in Corwin Hall at the University of North Dakota as part of my Wesley College Documentation Project.

I’ve been lucky enough to chat a bit with Amy Papalexandrou about ideas very similar to those Gerstel and her crew sought to document at the Acheiropoietos church and Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. The goal of the project was to determine whether the architecture of these buildings functioned to promote (or more likely co-create) certain soundscapes in these buildings throughout their long histories. The evidence is suggestive, if a largely inconclusive. The buildings themselves have changed since the Byzantine period and their acoustic character is likely significantly different than it was in the past. Painted plaster wall instead of marble revetting, the removal of parapet screens between columns, and the absence of fabric wall coverings, rugs, and other damping in the buildings promoted different conditions that transformed the sound of these churches. As significantly, human bodies absorb sound and large congregations on feast days, for example, would have transformed the signature of the building as well. 

None of this is to diminish the significance of the acoustic research into these spaces. After all, most architectural and art historians can look beyond later modifications of these spaces to understand and “see” the original structures and their visual impacts. My own work, for example, considered the role that the columnar screens between the aisles and the central nave played on the visual experience of a processional liturgy. The impact of sound on both the experience and the shape of the liturgy in long-lived buildings would have almost certainly been as significant as the visual experience of the Christian rite. 

Later today, we’ll be recording the acoustic properties of the turn-of-the-century Wesley College recital room in Corwin Hall on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Rather than trying for a kind of rigorously empirical recording that seeks in frequency response and other quantitative measures to document the sonic signature of a room, we are attempting to capture the essence of the space through performance. We are fortunate to have a willing collaborator in Mike Wittgraf, from UND’s music department, who is an accomplished musician as well as a specialist in electronically mediated music that takes advantage of multiple speakers, microphones, and other acoustic devices to create new sounds.

We’re doing this with the full understanding that this room has been modified in rather significant ways. The most significant modifications occurred in the late 1970s where the north wall of the room was moved forward some 8 feet and drop ceilings were installed around the edge of the room to hide ductwork. The windows have been partly filled in with more efficient aluminum windows and the room lacks damping drapery or other window treatments that almost certainly would have featured in the original building.  

Full Set pdf 2018 03 13 07 04 56

E103 pdf 2018 03 13 07 04 05

All the same, the room clearly possess some of its former acoustic properties. The high vaulted ceiling, for example, creates what Mike Wittgraf called a distinctive “ring” to the room. Performing in the space today, however, will tell part of the story of the building’s history. While we don’t have original recordings from the space (at least that we know of), our recording in the building will offer a perspective from which a savvy ear or just a curious mind might imagine what the room sounded like in its original configuration just as an experience or imaginative eye can see through various renovations to the space and visualize its original form.

Finally, I’d like to imagine that this is part of an archaeology of care. Corwin Hall is scheduled for demolition this spring and the space surely witness more than its share of nervous and exuberant performances over its first 50 years of life as a recital hall (from 1909 to 1965 or so). Wesley College originally served as the music department for UND and Mike Wittgraf’s parting concert – featuring Wesleyan hymns appropriate for a funeral – serves as fitting send off for the room and the building.

Tune in to my Facebook page at around noon today to catch a broadcast of the concert. We’ll also release the various recordings with some explanation in the future.  

Update on the Wesley College Documentation Project

After about 5 partial days of fieldwork, we’re beginning to get a grasp on the Wesley College Documentation Project. For those unfamiliar with this project, a team of students, faculty, and staff are working to document the two original Wesley College buildings on the camps of the University of North Dakota. With the exception of Robertson Hall (1930), these buildings were built in the first decade of the 20th century to serve Wesley College, an innovated Methodist College associated with the UND. Larimore and Sayre Halls served as women’s and men’s dormitories, respectively, and the Corwin and Robertson Halls provided space for music and religious studies classes as well as college offices. In 1965, Wesley College became officially part of UND. Corwin/Larimore Hall underwent significant modifications in the late 1970s to accommodate faculty offices and research spaces. Robertson/Sayre has been transformed in a less systematic way, but served similar functions in recent times. 

So far, the team has focused on Corwin and Larimore Halls and hopes to move to Robertson/Sayre by mid-March. The project has been shaped by a sense of urgency in documenting the buildings before asbestos mitigation begins and the buildings are razed in late May or June. So far, we’ve documented most of the third and fourth floors of Corwin/Larimore hall in a fairly detailed way with over 500 photographs and dozens of carefully described spaces. This data collection, however, has moved a bit ahead of our interpretation, but the latter is catching up as we have become more familiar with the spaces. 

Several ideas have begun to crystalize as we’ve made our way through these spaces. 

1. 50 Objects. I’ve asked the field teams to identify 50 objects that tell the story of Corwin/Larimore Hall. We will photograph and document each object in greater detail and prepare a catalogue that reflects the diverse history and functions of these spaces. We will also include a brief description of why this object is significant to the history of the building. 

2. Hearing Corwin Hall. In the original design, Corwin Hall 300 was a recital hall for Wesley College and designed with this acoustic function in mind. After the 1978 modifications to the space, in which an enclosed stairwell was added that encroached upon the stage area of the recital hall and comprised the acoustics of the space. Even after that modification, there remains a distinct sound to the room and we’ve arranged for one of the old “punk archaeology” colleagues, Mike Wittgraf, to bring his keyboard rig and some microphones to capture the sound of both Corwin 302, but also the rest of the Corwin/Larimore hall.

3. Documenting Abandonment. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Wesley College Documentation Project is that we are witnessing the building in the brief gap between abandonment and demolition. The distinct character of the assemblage produced by Corwin/Larimore Halls speaks to complex network of relationships that shape decisions to move, recycle (through officially surplus objects for reuse or resale elsewhere), or abandon everyday objects in academic spaces. Moreover, the assemblage is historically constituted as the decision to discard or keep obsolete or outdated objects over time produced the assemblage preserved in the building. While archaeologists have rightly rejected the so-called “Pompeii Premise,” the assemblage present in Corwin/Larimore does represent a frozen moment in time that embodies a series of short and longterm historical decisions. Unpacking this assemblage and attempting to recognize the reasons for its form provides a useful commentary on the role of objects in our everyday and institutional life.   

4. History and Memory on the UND Landscape. The longterm plan for the space left behind by the Wesley College buildings is to move the Stone House (also called the Oxford House) to the space. The Colonial revival building was designed by Joseph Bell DeRemer in 1902 and originally served as the home of UND’s presidents, and as a billboard for the university. In the early 1970s, it received a systematic restoration and then it became the home of the UND alumni association. During my time on campus, it has served as an all purpose reception space. By erasing the physical memory of Wesley College and overwriting it with the Stone House, UND is rewriting the historical landscape of campus at a moment when it is also reimagining its own future.  

5. Performance. The Wesley College Documentation Project team generally agrees that documenting these buildings is more than just a historical or archaeological task and is part of larger effort to demonstrate that we care about the history of UND’s campus. As part of that, we’re trying to figure out ways to make our work public that go beyond the typical websites, articles, or presentations that scholars have long used to present their work. My hope is that we do something public and performative to demonstrate our interest in these buildings and to mark their place on campus for the public and future generations of students and stakeholders. The Wesley College experiment was a distinct and unique one that had a marked influence on the early history of UND. There is something worth commemorating here. 

Teaching Thursday: Two Old Buildings on Campus

I have come to realize that I’m more or less addicted to one too many things on my plate, one too many adventures to be had, one too many ideas, one too many books, and one too many causes to champion. Maybe it’s the adrenalin rush or the welling up of anxiety that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of losing it with your mind skipping from idea to idea like a rock skimming across a flat pond. In fact, for me, I suspect, it’s the tension between flat pond and the skipping rock that draws me back to being over-extended day after day, week after week (well, that and the prodding (and encouragement) of friends like Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, and Bret Weber. They all at various times feel like the academic equivalent of that friend in college who convinces you to start drinking at 1 pm on a Thursday.)

This is a long introduction, to introduce my first effort at a one-credit pop-up class.

HIST 300

History 300 will focus on two (actually four) old buildings on campus of the University of North Dakota: Roberstson/Sayre Hall and Corwin/Larimore. They’re both hybrid buildings with one part built in the first decade of the 20th century and one part built in the 1920s. They offered housing and classroom space for a hybrid institution: Wesley College. Wesley College grew out of Red River University which had branches in Fargo and Whapeton. In Grand Forks, it worked in symbiosis with UND and offered classes in music, art, and religion. Some of the most famous graduates from UND came through Wesley College in one way or another including Maxwell Anderson. The college functioned as a residential unit that also offered classes and in that way, it worked a bit more like today’s residential colleges in the UK and, say, at the University of Toronto. In 1965, it was absorbed formally by UND and since then, the buildings have served as the homes to various department and university units.

Earlier this year, both buildings were slated for demolition and Corwin/Larimore is empty. Robertson/Sayre is almost empty as well. Because I can’t resist the temptation to document, explore, and investigate, I created a one-credit class to get some students into these buildings before they’re are gone to study and document them. While the outsides of the buildings are on the way to becoming pretty well documented, I’m interested in getting the students to help me notice the traces of use left in buildings that have stood on campus for over a century. The class will focus on the history of the buildings based on archival documents in UND special collections, the history of the architecture of the buildings (and the UND campus, which Kostis Kourelis is already developing), and, more importantly for me, the careful autopsy of the buildings.

Since the class is only one-credit, I can’t expect too much from the students in terms of reading, but I can’t resist including some recommended readings (and I suspect that Richard and Kostis will add to this list!):

Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016).
Laurie A. Wilkie’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: a historical archaeology of masculinity in a university fraternity. (2010)
Timothy Webmoor, “Object-oriented metrologies of care and the proximate ruin of Building 500”in Ruin Memories ed. Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir (2014).
Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer, “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus” in Modern Material Culture: the archaeology of us. Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer eds. (1981).

Two Abstracts for the European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting

My morning today was filled with finish abstracts from the EAA annual meeting. Since I can submit two and was kindly asked to contribute to two panels, I put together two abstracts that look to similar topics. These abstracts are pretty raw and the ideas should be both familiar to readers of this blog, but also slightly rougher and more incomplete. I’m thinking of them as prompts for me to develop as much as abstracts that summarize completed thoughts.

The first abstract is for Colleen Morgan, Catherine Frieman, and Marta Diaz-Guardamino Uribe’s panel titled “Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies”. I blogged about it here.

Here’s the abstract:

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Recent research has emphasized the significant impact that digital technology is having on archaeological practice. Over the last decade, my work has tried to come to terms with post and transhuman archaeology. First, I proposed a “punk archaeology,” which looked to rawness and immediacy of punk rock music as a model for a disruptive interest in the performance of archaeological work. Later, I became intrigued by the popular “slow foods” movement as well as in the work of diverse scholars on the rapidly accelerating pace of modernity as a model for a “slow archaeology” that sought to trace both the rhetoric surrounding and practice of digital technology in field practice. Recent work by Eric Kansa and Ömür Harmanşah have pushed me to recognize that slow archaeology may well offer a solid foundation for critiquing the growing influence of neoliberal expectations in the use of digital tools in archaeological work.

This paper draws on field experiences doing intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean and the archaeology of the contemporary world in North Dakota to consider how digital tools mediate and transform not only archaeological information in the field, but also the experience of fieldwork. Critical reflections on these processes have shaped an archaeology of care that considers more than the efficiency, accuracy, and convenience of digital tools and analysis, and, instead, shifts the focus how the archaeologist and these tools creates a meaningful space of archaeological practice. Archaeology of care foregrounds the constitution of the archaeological field team, interaction between archaeologists and communities during field work, the location of archaeological analysis, and the experience of archaeological knowledge making to expand our sensitivity to the ways that digital technology is transforming our discipline.

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The second abstract is for Rebecca Seifried and Tuna Kalayci’s panel and titled “”The “Geospatial Turn”: Critical Approaches to Geospatial Technologies in Archaeological Research.” I’ve blogged about it here.

And, here’s my abstract:

Slow Spaces: Big Data, Small Data, and the Human Scale

Fernando Braudel famously demonstrated in The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, that historical data analyzed at various scales are not necessarily comparable or commensurate. In other words, history written at the chronological and spatial scale of the longue durée need not inform history written at the scale of the individual or event. On the one hand, this appears to be a common sense conclusion and corresponds well to our experience of purchasing suggestions produced by algorithm, the music choices of Pandora, or any number of predictive models that falter when ground-truthed.

On the other hand, archaeologists regularly seek to work between scales as they both collect information in the field in a tremendously granular and detailed way and seek to use so-called “big data” to understand lived experiences. To make data collected at the small scale commensurate with both data and research questions articulated at a larger scale invariably involves standardization practices that obscure the agency of the individual archaeologist. In this way, our sense of scale in argument influences, in some ways, the limits of agency in practice.

My paper today will briefly explore the intersection of slow archaeology and space in archaeology. Slow archaeology offers a critical approach to digital practices in field archaeology and emphasizes the irregular and unstructured nature of archaeological knowledge generated through experience. These slow spaces represent a distinct form of archaeological knowledge making because of their incommensurability with the spaces of big data. These are not space that can or should be reconciled with the conventional approaches of spatial analysis.

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Over the last week or two, I’ve been trying to figure out a paper for a panel at the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona in September. The panel is titled “Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies” and the abstract looks for papers that: 

“… evaluate the growing paradigm of digital archaeology from an ontological point of view, showcase the ways digital technologies are being applied in archaeological practice—in the field/lab/studio/classroom—in order to critically engage with the range of questions about past people and worlds into which digital media give us new insights and avenues of approach.”

It’ll be a good panel and the folks proposing it are both cutting edge and super smart.

Obviously, this is something that deeply interests me, but it also has demoralized me in some ways. Whenever I read the latest paper on the use of digital tools, technologies, and practices in the field, I feel a bit anxiety. The language geared toward efficiency, accuracy, precision, and seamlessness in archaeological work doesn’t make me happy and to think that the archaeology of the future will be better, that the knowledge that we produce will be better, that the discipline that defines us will be better, and that the society that we inhabit will be better. I don’t like the feeling that – to paraphrase any number of recent dystopian science-fiction plots: “humanity is a bug” and technology is the solution.

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care.

I’m not sure that humanity is a problem to solve and challenge to overcome and somewhat is begging to be enhanced, augmented, or virtualized. I actually like just normal reality. I don’t really want to click here to save everything. I’m not comfortable with the idea that symmetrical archaeology requires symmetrical practice, and I don’t enjoy the realization that the varied abilities of humans are affordances that constrain the functioning of tools.

I’m not saying that we don’t all need a little BLOCKCHAIN in our lives or that I haven’t adapted to the keyboard on my space-grey MacBook Pro. I mean, I wear and Apple Watch and it has nudged me to exercise more regularly. I used a drone to map a hilltop fortification this summer in probably 20% of the time that even a bad conventional survey map would take. I now stream cricket, the NBA, television shows, movies, and most importantly for me, music. Running my high-resolution, streamed music through a vacuum tube amplifier that drives full-range, paper drivers makes me feel a little better, but only because it obscures how deeply embedded I am in the internet of things. I mean, I think my dogs are real. I’m pretty sure. I’ve asked them repeatedly if they dream of electric squirrels. The bigger, yellow dog, just tilts his head.

What also causes me anxiety is that technology is also a problem to solve. Perfect music forever has become high resolution audio has become high definition audio has become vinyl spinning on turntables. The portable digital document in portable document format has become obsolete in the age of linked, machine readable data. Text mining offers ways to strip meaning from the tangled clutter of language or to strip language from the page or mine meaning from the ore of style or something. Mountains of text are now laid low, but the slag heaps of un-mineable documents threaten to bury the town. The codex discarded on a riverbank becomes an object rather than a source.

In fact, everything is an object now. We catalogue objects, collect objects, objects become database objects, objects orient toward ontologies. Things fall into line or create lines or become lines or push us to fall into line. Sometimes, I feel like I just can’t deal with it all.

And all the while, the churning hum of technology of data of objects pushes us people – symmetrically – to become data too. Uberfication. Archeology isn’t about the past. It’s not about people. It’s not about societies or buildings or art or identity or even the archaeologist. It is about data. Archaeology is a data problem to be solved. Uber is really a data analysis company. So is archaeology these days. 

To be clear, I’m part of the problem. I use the word workflow, I’ve talked about data, I’ve thought about blockchain (but not really), and I’ve even considered efficiency and inefficiency as metrics to evaluate practice. Even if I admit that good practices are inefficient, the friction in the system contributes energy to creativity. Industrial and post-industrial metaphors saturate my prose and introduce seams to the smooth contours of experienced reality.

Maybe it makes sense. After all, books have pages. Archaeology is a discipline born from industrial practices. Schliemann was an industrialist. The tools of the industrial and the post-industrial revolution – the railway, the assembly line, specialization, the manager, the spreadsheet, the database – have coevolved (and it been compounded by the university). It’s hardly surprising that archaeology is post-industrial these days and data driven. 

Even craft and slow and punk these days stands apart more and more as a response or a reaction. Craft beer isn’t less manufactured somehow and mechanical watches use silicon balance springs and were designed in AutoCad and 3D printed. Vacuum tube amplifiers have integrated circuits to balance the tubes.  Vinyl records are produced from digital masters. Craft and slow are an affect. There is no outside the digital.

Anyway, I’m spiraling now. I’m going to give a paper in September and it’s going to try to say some of these things in a way that embodies my very human anxiety. Digitally mediated anxiety. Craft anxiety. Intentionally imperfect to remind us that perfect data forever used to not be a thing.

Objects, Symmetry, and Care

I was pretty enthralled by the conversation between Ian Hodder and Gavin Lucas in the most recent issue of Archaeological Dialogues. Not only do Hodder and Lucas model scholarly a collegial, yet probing scholarly interaction, but they offer a useful primer on the complex web of concepts, theories, and practices associated with the “new materialisms.

The main focus of the article is an effort to understand the utility of symmetrical archaeology by probing the limits and character of symmetries and asymmetries in human-thing relations. Ian Hodder’s concept of entanglement features prominently in the discussion (as does C. Witmore’s well-known framing of the issue in his article “Symmetrical Archaeology – Fragments of a Manifesto”). The conversation centered on the so-called double bind created when humans depend on things and, as a result, things take on part of the burden of caring for humans. This bind creates certain kinds of relationships that archaeologists (among others) have regarded as either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Hodder and Lucas propose here that characterizing relationships between humans and things as symmetrical or asymmetrical is best recognized as a continuum with true symmetry between humans and things being rather harder to understand (at least within western ontologies) than extreme examples of asymmetry. The challenge is, as Lucas pointed out, understanding how to evaluate the extent of asymmetry. If the extent of measure of symmetry relies exclusively on existential issues, then human-made things always exist is a rather extreme state of asymmetry from humans. If the measure of asymmetry has to do with power, then we on more familiar, if no better defined territory of power in social life (sketched out, to my mind, more effectively by Foucault). The value of approaching human-thing relations without the expectation to a functional asymmetry (things are only ever tools that are used or discarded based on their immediate utility) continues to hold even if the pole of radical asymmetry remains far more easy to understand than the continuum that extends toward a putative symmetry between humans and things.    

The significance of this debate becomes clear in their discussion of entanglement. For example, Lucas and Hodder (as well as some of the respondents to their dialogue) consider whether elites are more densely entangled with things than the poor and whether elites are more or less trapped in their relationship with things. This might suggest a greater degree, for example, of symmetry as being an elite (at least an elite in terms of wealth within a capitalist regime) in almost all cases depends upon particular relationships with particular packet of things. Such things might range from currency itself to property, certain prestige objects, articles of clothing, modes of transport, and forms of energy. In fact, these things often provide the means for the elite to wield power to such an extent (again, how do we measure extent?) that eliteness could not exist without these things. Non-elites, on the other hand, require nearly nothing, that is no things, to be non-elite, and outside of the (increasingly) rare cases of radical asceticism (which even then is perhaps more dependent on relationships with certain kinds of things than such ascetics might readily admit), the non-elite are less entangled with things. That being said, individual objects might still exert significant power over non-elites because although non-elites are less dependent on particular assemblages of things for their status and power, they are no more free from the existential dependency upon things such things as food, shelter, and protection. 

As the world confronts the twin dangers of increasingly disparities of wealth (which is nearly always defined by particular relationships with things) and the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, the understanding the relationship between humans and things becomes all the more urgent. It is clear to me, at least, that instrumental or crassly functional understandings of our relationship to the world around us have produced what may well be irreversible damage to the earth. As global non-elites increasingly feel the existential consequences of such attitudes, one wonders whether the social consequences of our modern entanglement with things, especially their key role in defining the elite, serves in some ways to liberate the non-elites, because ultimately they are more prepared to adapt their relationship to things to their changing realities, or among elites whose existence will become increasingly circumscribed by challenges associated with maintaining social and political power that is much more entrenched and entangled in particular relationships with things. To be more blunt, the elites have much more to lose than non-elites as a result of climate change and less flexibility to adapt while still maintaining the status and power as elites. (And, yes, I realize that this is a bit tautological.)

Concerns such as these offered a context for a discussion of care. It is clear, for example, that human entanglements with other humans – symmetrical or otherwise – often involve the issue of care. This further complicates the issue of symmetry because, at least in our Western ways of knowing about the world, things lack the capacity to care. On the other hand, humans can care about things and things can provide care to humans. In fact, care seems to be a vital aspect of entanglement perhaps to the extent of making entanglement possible. 

In this context, then, the archaeology of care takes on a distinct new dimension. When Richard Rothaus and I first started to think about an archaeology of care, we emphasized the role of the archaeologist and archaeological method as demonstrating that people and their things mattered to marginalized groups. Not only can archaeology offer a distinctive way to document life in the Bakken man camps – or in Greek refugee camps – but it also demonstrated that individuals and the fabric of their existence had value, meaning, and significance far beyond their own context. 

An expanded archaeology of care could encompass the ideas of care unpacked in the Lucas and Hodder dialogue and the vital role of care in creating conditions for material entanglement. Valuing other people and things in both symmetrical and asymmetrical ways creates the lines of entanglement which constitutes the fabric of our relationships with things and other humans. An archaeology of care could document these bonds.