Springtime Writing: Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

A few months ago, I started to try to write a book proposal for a book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture for the University Press of Florida’s series The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective. It stalled a bit (ironically) because I started to work on documenting the historical and contemporary material culture associated with two buildings on the University of North Dakota’s campus, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre slated for demolition. Racing the bulldozer and asbestos mitigation has created some challenges and forced us to make some decisions as to what we planned to document, by what methods (photos, video, description?) and how intensively. 

But all this is somewhere between an excuse and some sense of priorities. To prove to whatever audience that this blog still has that I can follow through, I’m posting my proposed outline below. It’s in draft still and there are certainly ways for me to tighten up the coherence of the book particularly the interweaving of theory (particularly the opportunity for archaeology of the contemporary world to problematize certain key aspects of archaeological method and practice) and the important traditions embodied in American historical archaeology. Hopefully that’ll come through more in the final draft, but for a general sketch, this is how I envision the book.

The Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

This book will have two sections with each part anchored by on of my field project. Part 1 will begin with the excavation of Atari game cartridges from the Alamogordo landfill in 2014 and then focus on how objects in context create a distinct American culture. Part 2 considers the archaeology of contemporary American landscapes and concludes with an analysis of the industrial landscape of the Bakken oil patch.


The introduction will explore the key aspect of archaeology of contemporary American culture by unpacking the concept of contemporaneity in recent archaeological thought and the tension between archaeology’s use of time to defamiliarize our past and present as well as considering how an archaeology of the contemporary world explicitly requires us to co-locate with the objects and landscape that we study. This intersection with contemporaneity opens up new space for the role that archaeology can play in addressing pressing social, economic, technological and environmental challenges and opportunities in American society as well as introducing new epistemological perspectives on how archaeologists produce meaningful knowledge.

Part 1: Objects and Contexts

Part 1 of the book considers the role of objects in the archaeology of the contemporary world. Starting with an analysis of our excavation of the famous Atari dump in the Alamogordo landfill and considering the role of abundance, discard practices, and various objects mediated by increasing digital means.

1. Atari

The Alamogordo Atari excavation were organized by a documentary film company and funded by Microsoft for distribution over their Xbox console. The work sought to “prove” the well-known urban legend that Atari had dumbed thousands of games in landfill of the dessert town of Alamogordo in the 1980s. The excavation of the landfill produced over a thousand Atari games as well as a wide range of household trash. The excavation located the games simultaneous in 21st century American culture with its accelerated sense of nostalgia, but also within a distinctive 20th century assemblage of domestic and consumer waste.

2. Garbology, Discard, and Trash

The practice of documenting and analyzing contemporary domestic discard originated with William Rathje’s garbology work in Tuscon, Arizona. The study of the archaeology of trash opened the door to new critiques of consumer culture, the formation of contemporary assemblages, and a persistent interest in determining how both patterns of discard and discarded objects produce meaning. Recent work on discarded material culture involves sociological studies on scrounging, scavenging, and informal recycling and curation practices that produced distinctive assemblages of material and practices. This chapter returns to the roots of archaeology in its interest in middens and trash and shows how contemporary American garbage presents the distinctive insights into consumer culture and values.

3. Objects

In one of the most famous essays in archaeology of the contemporary world is C. Tiley and M. Shanks (1992) analysis of beer cans from Sweden and England. They famous urge archaeologists rely less on empirical methods and engage objects through the lens of cultural studies and as part of a more complex system of meaning making. In recent decades the rise of a distinctive “material culture studies” informed by new concepts of agency has provided new approaches for studying objects as part of networks of human and material actors. This chapter reviews the diverse ways that archaeologists of the contemporary world have continued to reflect on the entangled nature of objects in creating the experiences of life in New Orleans, homelessness, or American childhood.

4. Media

Among the more dynamic and compelling hybrid spaces for archaeology of the contemporary world is media archaeology. Originally framed by work in media studies, media archaeology considers the materiality of media and the relationship between technology, form, content, and culture. Archaeologists, for their part, have come to recognize the significant of digital objects and media for their own work in both a practical sense and as a conceptual problem for unpacking contemporary culture. The materiality of an Atari cartridge or a Grateful Dead long-playing record, only tells part of their significance in an archaeological and cultural context. Michael Schiffer’s interest in transistor radios, for example, anticipated recent studies of the archaeology of computers and the internet. The development of digital archaeology and archaeogaming recognizes the extension of American culture into virtual worlds and digital spaces complete with digital objects that require documentation, curation, and preservation. This chapter, then, explores approaches to objects and media that have shaped American culture.

Part 2: Landscapes and Situations

The second part of the book examines particular landscapes that reflect certain situations in 21st century American culture. Starting along the margins and emphasizing the growing precarity of certain groups in America and proceeding to examine the institutional and industrial landscapes, this section will explore case-studies that trace the contours of archaeology at a scale intended to reflect the expansive and complex problems facing American society.

5. Precarity and Marginal Places: homelessness, borders, and squats

Archaeology of the contemporary world is particularly well-suited to documenting groups and individuals who produce particularly ephemeral artifactual signatures or fall to the margins of traditional documentation practices. Larry Zimmerman’s archaeology of homelessness and Jason De Leon’s detailed study of the distribution of objects associated with illegal immigrants demonstrate how archaeological methods can produce significant new understandings of historically and socially marginal groups. Similar interest in the material traces of short-term events ranging from Occupy Wall Street encampments to the remains of the Burning Man festival offer case studies for how archaeology can tell complicating stories that challenge and enrich conventional narratives. This chapter will demonstrate that objects, landscapes, and precarious places can reveal otherwise overlooked, marginal, or ephemeral events that constitute modern forms of community.

6. Institutional Landscapes: Campuses, Military Bases, and Parks

Institutional spaces offer archaeological landscapes often dominated by deeply inscribed expressions of authority or influence. University campuses, military bases, and public spaces and infrastructure define significant spaces in the American landscape that both function as markers of power, authority, and ideology and preserve traces of subversion, resistance, and re-interpretation. The archaeology of contemporary campus life, for example, leaves intriguing traces in abandoned buildings and in discard patterns along well-manicured campus walkways. The archaeology of military bases and outposts negotiates the tension between visible projections of power and the hidden work of military authority often best documented through satellite and remote images. This chapter emphasizes how the archaeology of contemporary institutional landscapes offers a critical and subversive approach to our manicured and manipulated material surroundings.

7. Industrial, Extractive, and Exploratory Landscapes

The emergence of ruin porn and the photographic documentation of extractive landscapes offers an accessible perspectives on the detritus of the modern world. The well-established field of industrial archaeology with its distinctive place in American historical archaeology overlaps with the tradition of mining archaeology in the American west. These fields are increasingly infused with approaches developed by environmental historians, landscape archaeology, climate criticism, and petroculture. This chapter focuses on recent work on how industrial and extractive landscapes – from the toxic Berkeley pit mine of Butte, Montana to the archaeology of space – excavate the roots of both our everyday modernity and our hopes (and fears) for the future.

8. The Bakken

The North Dakota Man Camp Project (2012-2017) documented workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota during both the height and decline of the Bakken Oil Boom. The rapid increase in drilling for oil and infrastructural improvement in the relatively remote and sparsely populated Bakken counties led to a significant influx of workers from outside the region. To house these workers, a wide array of short-term settlements emerged from prefabricated workforce housing units to motley camps of RV trailers towed to the region by the workers themselves. The penultimate chapter will consider the intersection of extractive landscapes, precarity, and a 21st century sense of home.

Conclusions, Prospects, and Problems

The concluding chapter seeks to trace the trajectories established in both parts of this book forward into the 21st century. An archaeology of and for the contemporary world both responds to and anticipates the challenges of climate change, economic precarity, virtual worlds, and new transdisciplinary spaces, methods, and approaches. Returning to the contemporaneity as

Four Things on a Wednesday Morning

I had four more or less random thoughts on my drive onto campus this morning. 

1. Famae Volent. There has been a good bit of buzz around the Classics job-hunter site Famae Volent this month. Most of it stems from the increasingly toxic, relatively un-moderated, and thoroughly angst-fill comments section. The tone lately has been hostile with attacks, incendiary language, and lots of blaming.

I can’t help but thinking that this is, in part, the result of the general state of the humanities and particularly proximate sense of dread created by the growing momentum for various austerity projects at both private and public colleges. You’ve undoubtedly read enough about austerity on this blog, so I won’t rehash my arguments. What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically. I’d be curious whether the language in the comments has, in fact, become increasingly polarized (as some have suggested and I agree with instinctively), by what measure we could understand this, and whether the language in the comments has parallels with, say, our political discourse or various larger intellectual (or anti-intellectual) trends. 

This seems like it would be a cool project for a digitally inclined historian or Classicist. 

2. Re-Reading. I almost never re-read things. I mean, I will go back to a text to look for something or to check my notes or confirm a citation or even to make sure that I understood a complex passage correctly, but I rarely sit down and re-read an academic book. Last week, I agreed to review Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016), for the American Journal of ArchaeologyI even blogged on it briefly a couple of years ago, but to be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the book and struggled to formulate a coherent critique. 

But now I have to! And what makes this review even more of an adventure is that the book has been pretty thoroughly reviewed across a wide range of literature. More than that, the AJA is aimed at Mediterranean and largely “Classical” archaeologists for whom this book should be relevant, but isn’t instinctively so. Stay tuned.

3. Racing the Bulldozer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working to document the two Wesley College buildings at UND: Corwin/Larimore and Roberston/Sayre Halls. I learned just this week two bits of news. First, Corwin/Larimore is slated to begin asbestos mitigation later this month and second that the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office is going to require Standard II recording for both buildings. The former will speed our work up and require us to set some new priorities. The latter will involve us having to collaborate with UND to find the ideal partners to complete the necessary documentation.

The good thing about the decision of the ND SHPO is that it will require a basic history for the two buildings and a technical architectural description and we hopefully fold this into our more comprehensive analysis of these buildings, their change over time, and their abandonment. 

4. Rejections. I’m sitting in the morning light that rakes through the garden level windows of the NDQ offices and facing the unpleasant task of writing my first little gaggle of rejection emails. While I know this is part of the business, I still find it depressing. The sunlight is helping a bit though. Maybe it’s even symbolic. Something about the darkest and the dawn or whatever. 

Back to work… 

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).

Objects and Conviviality

This weekend I finally got to read Michael Given’s latest article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal titled “Conviviality and Life of the Soil.” In this article, Given applies the Ivan Illich’s idea of conviviality (which I’ve blogged about before) to the life of the soil and the delicate balance between caring for the soil and agriculture on Cyprus. 

Given uses the concept of conviviality to explore the relationship between humans and non-humans and soil, rain, wind, and the myriad bacteria, animals, and plants that produce the soil that allows human agriculture to thrive. As with so much recent scholarship in archaeology – particularly scholarship in a conceptual vein – Given uses the complex relationship between humans and the soil to explore the concept of agency. In keeping with recent work in both anthropology and archaeology, Given recognizes that hybridized form of agency that includes both humans and the non-human agents in a convivial relationship that allows for mutual survival. 

Last week, I started to put together a proposal for a book on the archaeology of the contemporary world. I divided the book into two section, one on objects and agency and the other on landscapes and situations (thanks to a blog commentator for the suggestion of “situations”). These two section will both frame certain approaches and case studies (foregrounded by the Alamogordo Atari Expedition in the first part and the North Dakota Man Camp Project in the second part), but also form an arc that introduces the reader first to objects and “thing theory” and then push the reader to consider this expanded view of things as actant or agents in the work of archaeologists trying to come to terms with pressing contemporary concerns. Issues like climate change, in particular, demand a much more sophisticated set of tools to understand the relationship between human and non-human actors in shaping the web of relationships that makes human life possible on the Earth. Consumerism, forced migrations, and even the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, all rely in more subtle understandings of the relationship between humans and non-humans. Archaeologist have come to recognize both the long-standing views of human agency as meditated by things and the agency of things in shaping human potential. As Ian Hodder and Gavin Lucas just debated, taking things seriously is not a step away from pressing human problems, a retreat into the abject fetishization of materialism, or even an effort to somehow absolve humans from their role in global crisis, but a way to locate human actions in the past and present within bustling world filled with counterclaims, shared and hybrid authority, and ultimately persistent and compelling forces that human agency cannot counter or shape.

Graham Harman’s Immaterialism reminds us that objects exist without acting and the denser and stronger the ties of an object to other object (including human agents), the more fragile and precarious the existence or that object is. Strong and multiple ties binding objects to other objects create dependencies that ultimately compromise the ability of any single object to exist. These processes (or we might even suggest realities) force objects – even humans –  into increasingly asymmetrical relationships with other objects which either culminate the formation of symbiosis or failure. In either case, the fundamental character of the object changes.   

As Bruno Latour has recently noted in a series of lectures titled Facing Gaia, the messy experience of global climate change involves recognizing both the the significant epistemological challenges facing any effort to understand the densely entangled existence of objects (including ourselves) as well as the desperate, existential, need for humans to embrace their own place within the contingent Gaia. For Latour, the Anthropocene acknowledges the explicit role of humans in shaping Gaia and hints, rather dramatically, that the seeming stability of the Holocene, during which human society arose, no longer guaranteed. 

Archaeology of the Contemporary World, then, is as much about facing the social, political, and economic challenges facing a society drowning in kipple, but also about recognizing human society as a product of a wide “multiverse” of agents and objects that share both our fate and our future. Contemporaneity as a concept involves making explicit our situatedness in a contingent, precarious existence. Whatever social good we can do, the crisis is ultimately existential.     

Wishful Thinking Wednesday: A Book Proposal for The Archaeology of Contemporary American Life

About six weeks ago, a colleague out of the blue asked whether I’d be interested in writing a book on the archaeology of contemporary American life. Because I almost never say “no” to anything, I responded: “Of course, DUH?! I mean, who wouldn’t? Why wouldn’t I?” 

I then went on a long walk or two, sat on my stationary bike, and thought about what a book proposal on this topic might look like.

My proposal started with the idea that I have two anchor case studies for the book: The North Dakota Man Camp Project and the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. Both projects represent, in some ways, essential traditions in the archaeology of the contemporary world. The former reflects the longstanding interest in industrial archaeology, archaeology of extractive industries (particularly mining), and the archaeology of short-term or ephemeral settlement (e.g. the archaeology of camps, of homelessness, and of modern squats of various kinds). The latter looks toward both the tradition of Bill Rathje’s “garbology” and the emerging fields of media archaeology/archaeology of media, and with a nod to “archaeogaming.

The book would consider the place of the archaeology of the contemporary world within the distinctly American tradition of historical archaeology. This tradition grounds the archaeology of the contemporary world in the empirical traditions of careful and intensive fieldwork and processual archaeology. The influence of Rathje and Schiffer loom large in this work and their earnest respect for objects and things, from garbage to portable radios, anticipates what Tim LeCain has called “new materialisms” and Graham Harman’s immaterialism. I’d argue that the American tradition of archaeology of the contemporary distinguishes it from similar efforts in a continental mode that have drawn more freely on the work of Tilley and Shanks, for example, in their famous study of beer cans. Tiley and Shanks, in my mind, anticipate recent studies that consider the agential character of things drawing on symmetrical archaeology, “object oriented ontologies,” and the ANT of Bruno Latour. This distinction, of course, is not a tidy one, and plenty of cross pollination has occurred (and my recent review essay on “ontology, world archaeology, and the recent past” recognize the range of methods, theoretical perspectives, and forms of presentation that archaeologists of the contemporary world draw upon to make their arguments. Rodney Harrison’s and Esther Briethoff’s survey of the field from this years Annual Review of Anthropology (here’s a preprint), demonstrates a similar diversity. 

The various approached to an archaeology of the contemporary world share an interest in objects, buildings, places, and, to steal a word from my old buddy Kostis, situations. They also share a commitment to the potential of archaeological approaches to shed light on overlooked communities, groups, and individuals, to redefine the relationship between humans, objects, and the environment, and ultimately to affect social change. 

This is where I am right now. To organize these areas into a book, I have a provisional table of contents:

Part 1: Objects and Contexts
1. Atari
2. Garbology
3. Objects
4. Media

Part 2: Landscapes
1. Precarity and Marginal Places: homelessness, borders, and squats. 
2. Institutional Landscapes: campuses, military bases, and parks.
3. Industrial and Extractive Landscapes
4. The Bakken

Conclusions, Prospects and Problems

I’m open to any and all thoughts about this. My goal is for the book to come in under 100,000 words, probably in the neighborhood of 60,000-80,000, so 30,000 each for Part 1 and Part 2 and then 5,000 words each for an introduction and conclusion. 

My plan, for now, is to work out the book proposal over the next month or so on my blog! But, for now, back to abandonment… 

The Mezzanine and Kipple

Last year, I was obsessed (or at least very interested) in Philip K. Dick and his view of the material world and archaeology. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he introduces the word “kipple” to describe the proliferation of useless objects that reproduce in the absence of human presence. For Dick, kipple was the side-effect of useful actions that produced useless objects. Opening a stick of gum produced the useless gum wrappers, reading a newspaper produced a day old newspaper, and drinking milk produced an empty milk carton.

Nicholson Baker offers a different perspective on kipple. In The Mezzanine, Baker details a single moment in the life of the narrator as he as ascends the escalator to his mezzanine level office after his lunch break. The narrator contemplates his varied intersection with people, but more importantly objects which led him to be ascending the escalator with a small bag containing shoelaces purchased at a nearby CVS.

For the narrator, the inaction with objects proceeded along three lines – and these lines more or less echo how archaeology of the contemporary world (and perhaps all archaeology?) engages with objects. For Baker, some objects are merely functional. For example, his broken shoelace (and the one that had broken two days before), demonstrate the relentless pressure of consistently and repeated actions. These actions are not specifically or narrowly defined. For example, it remained unclear whether the shoelace broke because of how the narrator tied his shoes or how the shoe was designed and flexed during walking. Objects in the narrator’s life likewise seem both to resist and to accommodate human interaction from vending machines to drinking straws, and the affordances offered by these objects, in due course, shape human actions. At one point the narrator contemplates whether there was a quantifiable way to understand how his two laces broke within a day or two of each other. Elsewhere, he considers the periodicity of thoughts to determine how frequently he would need to think about a particular things or topic for it to be “often” or “rarely.” The idea of quantifying regular actions is hardly foreign to archaeologists.  

There are also objects that have greater ritual significance for Baker. While these objects are indistinguishable from other every day objects, they nevertheless carry special significance for the narrator. For example, the narrator’s tie evoked his father’s tie collection draped over the door knobs in his childhood home. The narrator’s shoes reminded him that his parents bought him those shoes before his first day at work. Ritualized acts from tying his tie to lacing his shoes let loose a stream of memories that connected him with his childhood and other individuals. In another passage, the narrator contemplates the little rituals associated with riding the escalator from the technical character of the escalator itself to how you place your foot when you step onto it. The connection between objects, routine acts, and specific memories mark the intersection of ritual and the mundane objects of the contemporary world.  

The narrator’s ride up the escalator (and his long meditation on the escalator and on every day life in his office) provides a compelling context for his reflection on objects. The narrator recognizes this, of course, and the mundane character of the act of riding the escalator to a middle class job provides a backdrop to his reflections on the nature of things. At one point the narrator notices how even the messy hulk of a trash truck barreling down the highway has particular beauty when set against the blue sky. The rusted form of a railroad spike takes on a different meaning and appearance when set on the swept floor of a garage.

Baker’s work reminded me of the importance of context, ritual, and routine in the material world of contemporary society. The mundane and banal world of everyday, “office life” of the narrator is no less materially rich and significant than ritual life of the premodern world or places set aside for our engagement with the sacred. 

Archaeology of the Contemporary World

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a little book on archaeology of the contemporary world lately (actually, I’ve been thinking about this book for some time now). I’ve been collecting bibliography for the last few months, and this weekend, between grant applications, I read Rodney Harrison’s and Esther Briethoff’s survey of the field from this years Annual Review of Anthropology (here’s a preprint).

The article demonstrates the complexity, diversity, and expansiveness of the field which ranges from well-established and methodologically-defined sub-disciplines like forensic archaeology to small and distinctive studies involving objects, political, social, or economic situations, or marginal groups. There are a series of ideas that I extracted from this article that could help shape any future work on my part in this area.

Here they are:

1. Historical Archaeology. The relationship between archaeology of the contemporary world and the long-standing discipline of historical archaeology varies widely. On the one hand, the division is more or less chronological with historical archaeology typically involving material that has recognized heritage status (often 50 years before the present) or clear connections to figures or events of conventional historical significance (i.e. not every day life). On the other hand, the line between the contemporary and the historical is indeed a blurry one. Industrial sites, for example, may have long functional lives meaning that they are both conventionally historical and contemporary in use. The persistence of ruins, for example, in the contemporary world further complicates the line between historical and contemporary in the thinking of both contemporary and historical archaeologists drawing them both into one another’s methodological and experiential space. 

2. Time. I’ve recently thought a bit about the issue of contemporaneity on the blog and how it shapes both our encounter with the Atari excavation in Alamogordo and the way that we narrate it. The archaeology of the contemporary pushes us to think not only about time but about how temporality and chronology locates us as archaeologist in relation to what we study. For example, the tension between (a) our desire to isolate archaeological objects by removing them from our own temporal frame and locating them as part of a broken tradition, and (b) the basic familiarity with the objects that we study as part of the same modern world as the intellectual (and literal) tools that we use to document and analyze these objects. This ambivalent attitude toward the idea of contemporaneity represents a major epistemological challenge as well as a practical one. On the one hand, archaeology of the contemporary world insists on the archaeologist’s contemporaneity with their objects of study complicating the potential for the kind of empirical observations that have proven foundational to historical archaeological practice and the “new archaeology.” On the other hand, it has remained challenging to establish disciplinary metrics of rigor for archaeological practices grounded in experiential, phenomenological, or less formally empirical engagements with the past without eroding ties to the fundamental expectations of the archaeology as a discipline.       

3. Politics. There is a remarkably explicit political dimension to archaeology of the contemporary world. By this, I don’t mean political in a broadly theoretic way, but in a practical way. For example, Jason DeLeon’s recent work on migrants on the U.S. – Mexico border has an overt political dimension. Work emphasizing the role of archaeology in defining and understanding of climate change and the anthropocene in the contemporary world fits neatly and explicitly into a political narrative. Work in forensic archaeology and the archaeology of war is never without obvious political dimensions and the archaeology of homelessness and other projects that emphasize the marginal and hidden in western society represent clearly political commitments toward social justice, peace, and democratic ideals. Even when projects are somewhat more removed from the politics of the national headlines, there are commitments at the center of the archaeology of the contemporary world that frequently involve critiques of late capitalism and late modernity and the threat to the individual.

4. Theory. The political and chronological tensions in the archaeology of the contemporary are deeply embedded in the concerns of contemporary theory even if they are not articulated in this way. From the critical theory of the 1970s and phenomenological (and post-processual) approaches pioneered by Tilley and Shanks to crucial perspectives offered on science and technology by folks like Bruno Latour and Tim Ingold, archaeologists have almost universally assumed the grounding of archaeological practice in the contemporary would. This, in turn, opened the door to applying archaeology to the contemporary world in explicit ways. The acknowledgement of explicitly theoretical perspectives is, as one might expect, uneven as (see point 1) practitioners have varying degrees of investment in less overtly theoretical discourses (such as historical archaeology in the Anglo-American tradition), but the theory is there just below the surface. In fact, it is impossible to read archaeology of the contemporary world as existing outside a late-20th century (or at very least modern) theoretical context.

5. Method. Finally (and perhaps in some vague way, most importantly), there is the issue of method. As someone who has attempted to practice an archaeology of the contemporary world, the complexities of documenting the contemporary world in all of its contingency and dynamism remains a consistent challenge. Digital tools from video to photography, audio recordings, remote sensing, and various data collecting tools produce avalanches of data that contribute to an impressive and growing archive. The rise of crowd sourcing practices and platforms extends the culture and methods of data collecting from skilled practitioners to much broader audiences. Ethnoarchaeology, archaeological ethnography, and the reflexive ethnography of archaeological practice pollinated archaeology of the contemporary world with methods and practices from cultural anthropology, sociology, and oral history. The complexity and challenges facing an archaeology of the contemporary world is part of what gives this field its potential for both transforming more conventional archaeological practice and how we see ourselves. 

How these five themes would appear in a little book remains a bit hard to understand, but pulling these themes from the Harrison and Briethoff article feels like a meaningful start.