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.  

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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.


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.

More Punk Archaeology

I was pretty excited to read the most recent issue of World Archaeology dedicated to “Counter Archaeologies.” I blogged about Lorna-Jane Richardson’s intriguing article on punk archaeology this past summer, and while I guess my critique of it rubbed some folks the wrong way, I still think her article moved the conversation forward in important ways. And it was incredibly gratifying to see scholars engage the work I did with Kostis Kourelis and Andrew Reinhard a few years ago serious. (Download Punk Archaeology from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota here or buy a copy here!)

This past weekend, I read John Schofield’s introduction to the volume, “‘Deviants, punks and Pink Fairies’: counter- archaeologies for unreasonable people.” He approaches punk and counter archaeology in a deeply personal way. He located his own interest in counter or even punk archaeology in his experiences in the field in the 1970s and 1980s. Like many of us, he found the tension between the socially conservative character of archaeology as a discipline (and particularly as a practice) and its progressive goals jarring. The tendency to privilege the traditional forms of knowledge making, namely excavation, and periods of study, namely the preindustrial past, limited the scope and influence of archaeology as a discipline. Schofield found himself drawn to landscape practices, to marginal and understudied regions, and ultimately to the modern period which often fell well outside the archaeologist’s gaze. For Schofield, this has as much to do with his own resistance to authority and reluctance to be told what to do as any grandiose intellectual goals. I found this admission refreshing, perhaps because it describes my own attraction to punk archaeology. The more people pushed me to do conventional archaeological or historical work, the more I felt the need to do things and think about things differently. (And it should be clear that just thinking about things in a different way is not the same thing as actually producing new knowledge or contributing to the discipline…)

Schofield then goes on to propose a few principles of punk archaeology practice grounding in C. O’Hara’s Philosophy of Punk (1995) and D. Beer’s Punk Sociology (2014). For these scholars and, indeed, Schofield, punk practice opposed conformity, embraced the DIY, and – perhaps most importantly – valued individual freedom and responsibility.

This last point struck home for me. Recently, I’ve returned to thinking a bit about anarchism (and my recent book, The Bakken: [An archae]ology of an industrial landscape (2017) offers a little play on words that hints at some of my thinking) both as a way to undermine certain structural barriers that seem to limit how archaeology functions both in practice and in the broader area of method. While I’m not entirely sure that I have the ability or energy to reconcile the tendency for archaeological knowledge to be generalized, structural, and diachronic with the individualized character that defines some aspect of anarchic thinking, I do find appeals to undermine traditional practices and our increasingly bureaucratized (and Taylorist) approach to archaeological knowledge making provocative and potentially useful. At the same time, I’d like to think that my interest in archaeology of the contemporary world emphasizes the differences and disjunction between a world created by rules, convention, and expectations, and a world created by myriad individual decisions and practices. I look forward to reading Stuart Rathbone’s article in the same volume “Anarchist literature and the development of anarchist counter-archaeologies.”

Extending this view of the past to our work as archaeologists seems to be a key component of a punk archaeology and perhaps finds a useful, in unintentional, parallel with our concept of an “archaeology of care.” Of course, it would be profoundly un-punk for us to simply replace the orthodoxy of conventional archaeological practice with a model grounded in a different set of expectations and replace one conformity with another. And perhaps that’s the most appealing thing about Schofield’s introduction. By locating his understanding of counter archaeology in his own practices and in an intellectual tradition, he allows us to recognize the personal and the collective and disciplinary in punk practice and allows it to be “a thing” without having to conform to any one set of rules.

One last thing, it was a drag to see that a volume on counter archaeology did so little to engage with the fact that academic publishing not only promotes certain kinds of conformity of practice (both good and bad), but also limits access to our work. In recent years, private companies who seek to monetize the impact of our ideas and work, and this volume of World Archaeology is no exception. We can do better than this.

More on Codex: Books, Performance, and Archaeology

I was initially drawn to Micah Bloom’s Codex project because it combined two elements that have become more or less central to my life: books and archaeology. At our book launch event last Friday, I realized that Bloom’s project had even more in common with my interests than I had initially recognized. In a short presentation Bloom unpacked the process of developing both the Codex book and short films that came from his efforts to document the books scattered about the Minot landscape.

If you don’t know Micah Bloom’s Codex, do go and check it out now.

In a brief back-and-forth in Minot, I asked Micah if he was inspired by recent work in “archaeology of the contemporary world.” I was inspired to ask after he discussed the particular care that he and his team took to document the scattered books both in situ and to number, label, preserve, and photograph the collected books systematically. Moreover, his team donned hazmat type as you can see in this clip from his film, and approached each artifact with extraordinary care

He admitted that he wasn’t particular familiar with this frequently theoretical (or at least conceptually ambitious) branch of archaeological work. He was inspired, however, by various manuals and technical literature that he found on for dealing with toxic objects, biological waste (including bodies), and other potentially contaminated (and contaminating) detritus. In other words, he used technical literature as a guide to performing real archaeological fieldwork, not in order to produce a thoroughly and systematically documented record of the 2011 Minot flood, but capture the particular sanctity of the books left behind in its receding waters. Performing archaeological work demonstrated care.

Archaeologists like Michael Shanks have long recognized the confluence of archaeological work and performance, and, indeed, theater. Without delving too deeply into this inspiring, if complex set of ideas, I have always struggled a bit to understand the relationship between the superficiality of theater – that is the concession in theater that the actors and the audience both have to suspend disbelief and recognize the actors as acting their parts – and archaeological methods, which ideally guide actions even when no one is looking. This isn’t meant to denigrate the work of actors and the depth of the characters that they portray or the promote the idea of the archaeologist as a singularly and consistently principled practitioner (but I’m sure most of us say that we try to be). The desire to keep our scarps straight is not just a cosmetic act that reinforces the scientific (scientistical?) precision of our work, but a practical way to make the stratigraphic relationships between various depositional events more visible. An actor may embrace certain aspects of a character off the stage (perhaps as part of an approach inspired by method acting), but this is fundamentally secondary to role played on the stage. There is always a risk, then, in emphasizing the performative in archaeology that we succumb to the artificiality of the aesthetic and as Michael Shanks has realized “abstracted from what is being represented, removed in an escape from social and historical reality, from anonymous popular masses, from the messy vernacular human and natural detail…”

Micah’s work offers an intriguing complication to this risk. Not only did he document his work to bring order to the messy chaos of flood recovery speak to a particular moment in time (and an effort to resolve what must have been a pervasive feeling of disrupted existence), but he also documented the books themselves in ways that are not immediately visible in his published work. For example, he disclosed that he has photographs of hundreds of books in situ and once he and his team collected and documented them. He also has a database (technically a spreadsheet) of close to 800 books recovered, identified, photographed, and documented from his work. Unlike the public facing work of the film and book and installation, these aspects of the Codex project, like the method actors behind the scenes routine, remains out of sight (at least, for now). 

Since Micah’s presentation, I’ve been turning around in my head how to make at least some of this archive available. Whether this archive will produce new archaeological, historical, or cultural knowledge is difficult to say, but it does reveal the depth of Codex as a form of authentic archaeological engagement with the world. 

#IrmaSyllabus, #HarveySyllabus, #HurricaneSyllabus

As I watched Hurricanes Harvey and Irma surge through the Gulf of Mexico, I got to thinking about the environmental, historical, political, and academic context for these “megastorms.” We can easily add Sandy, Katrina, Rita, Irene, Andrew, Matthew and various other “natural” catastrophes to this list. This year, in particular, we can expand our view of disasters to include flooding in Southeast Asia which have killed over a thousand people and displaced a million and the fires in Montana that have caused millions of dollars in damage and covered the western U.S. in smoke.

Among the more intriguing developments in recent years has been to put together syllabi that allow the public to explore the complexity of recent events. These syllabi are often generated quickly and produced by collectives of scholars and public intellectuals and have accompanying hashtags. The best known of these being the #StandingRockSyllabus and the #CharlottesvilleSyllabus.

I rarely do this on the blog, but I am wondering what a #HurricaneSyllabus would look like?

My interests are historical rather than climatological or even strictly environmental, and, as a result, I’m interested in the historical circumstances that shaped the impact of these events and their local and global contexts. My instinct would be to divide the syllabus into five weeks:

Week 1: The environmental context for Harvey and Irma.
B. Fields, J. Thomas, and J. Wagner, “Living with Water in the Era of Climate Change: Lessons from the Lafitte Greenway in Post-Katrina New Orleans,Journal of Planning Education and Research 37.3 (2017), 309-321.

Kevin Fox Gotham and Joshua A. Lewis, “Green Tourism and the Ambiguities of Sustainability Discourse: The Case of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward,” International Journal of Social Ecology and Sustainable 6.2 (2015).

R. J. Niven and D.K. Bardsley, “Planned retreat as a management response to coastal risk: a case study from the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia,” Regional Environmental Change 13.1 (2013), 193-209.

R.A. Pilke, The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change. Tempe 2014.

Week 2: The geographic context for storms: settlement, economics, race, and history.
Check out some of the material tweeted by Prof. Andrea Roberts at Texas A&M with the hashtag #HarveySyllabus.

Federick C. Cuny, Disasters and Development. New York 1983

Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London 2017.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed. New York 2014. 

Daniel A. Farber, James Ming Chen, Robert R.M. Verchick and Lisa Grow Sun, Disaster Law and Policy. 3rd Ed. New York 2015.

Lafcadio Hearn, Chita: A Memory of Last Island. 1889

Week 3: The storm timeline: preparation and first responses.

Week 4: Rebuilding
D. Haeselin, Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997. Grand Forks 2017.  

Anthony Loewenstein, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. New York 2017. 

Week 5: History and Archaeology of the Storms
M. Bagwell, “After the Storm, Destruction and Reconstruction: The Potential for an Archaeology of Hurricane KatrinaArchaeologies 5 (2009), 280-292. 

M. Bloom, Codex (forthcoming, but preview available here).

S. Lee Dawdy, Patina: A Profane Archaeology. Chicago 2016. 

Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.  

Timothy H. Ives, Kevin A. McBride & Joseph N. Waller, “Surveying Coastal Archaeological Sites Damaged by Hurricane Sandy in Rhode Island, USAThe Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology (2017), 1-23.

Obviously my syllabus has some massive gaps, but please help me flesh this out in the comments section below or with the Twitter hashtag #HurricaneSyllabus.