Methods and Time for An Archaeology of the Contemporary World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining the Archaeology of Contemporary America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rewriting the Introduction

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

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

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

Introduction

Prelude

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

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

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

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

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

Defining the Field

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

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

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

Music Monday: Science Fiction, Jazz, and Urban Myth

This weekend, I listened to Nicole Glover’s latest album, Strange Lands. It’s pretty great. I wasn’t particular familiar with Glover’s work, although I knew her as part of the Eric Dolphy inspired group Out to Dinner and have found the music of that group intriguing, but not particularly compelling (but I’d have to listen to it more to say for certain).

Glover’s album is more interesting to me. She not only shows off her saxophone playing chops throughout — and a number of critics have associated her tone with late Coltrane — but more importantly and interesting she demonstrates a pretty deft hand a lyrical passages. From the sound of dusky smoke filled bars on “Twilight Zone” to agile and attentive playing with George Gables on Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and the lyricism of her version of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” Glover’s performances are just fantastic.

More importantly, for my current projects, she’s an huge science fiction fan and her most recent album is full of allusions to science fiction classics. The title of album, of course, is a nod to the Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land. Her reference to “Strange Land,” “Twilight Zone,” and “Hive Queen,” evoke classic science fiction motifs. The result is an album that blends an occasionally nostalgic sound with glimpses of a future that now feels just a bit threadbare.

While enjoying this album (and Play On by the aforementioned Out to Dinner) I read Yusuf Nuruddin’s 2006 article titled “Ancient Black Astronauts and Extraterrestrial Jihads: Islamic Science Fiction as Urban Mythology” in Socialism and Democracy 20.3. I don’t usually blog about 15 year old articles, but Nuruddin’s piece brought together a bunch of loose ends that I had been struggling to tie up lately. He explores the development of various kinds of urban myths that involve science fiction, UFOs, Afrocentric themes, and various interpretations of Islam and Christianity starting in the early 20th century. For Nuruddin the persistence of certain themes in Black urban culture for over 100 years suggests more than just a set of recurring popular ideas, but the emerging structure of an urban mythology that consisted of a “scathing social critique” that sought to redress many of the longstanding inequalities that face Black, poor, urban residents. The Moorish Science Temple (1913), for example, the Nation of Islam (1930), and (I’d add) various strains of Black Masonic experiences, contributed to the development of the Five Percenters (1964) and Nuwaubian Moors (1970) in the post-war period which attracted both formal acolytes and a whole range of more casual adherents who have adopted various aspects these groups’ believes and cosmology. While it is easy enough to dismiss these groups, and particularly troubled history of the Nuwaubian Moors, whose former leader is now serving a prison term for a range of sexual and financial misconduct, Nuruddin makes it clear that these groups continue a process of re-imagining Islam by incorporating science fiction motifs including ancient aliens to create a new form of urban mythology. For Nuruddin, these ideas did not exist in a vacuum, but drew on long-standing motifs, stories, and ideas shared across the Black urban experience. Their status as myth was not meant to dismiss their importance, but to validate their formal significance as a set of religious ideas worthy of formal study. Just as ancient myths derive meaning, in part, through the social milieu in which they circulated, so did these Black urban myths which seek to offer hope and history to communities alienated from their past first by the Middle Passage and the Great Migration in the 20th century and enduring poverty, racism, and political disempowerment in the present.    

David S. Anderson’s far more recent piece in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religion, “Crafting a Mysterious Ancient World: The Effects of Theosophy and Esotericism on Public Perceptions of Archaeology,” likewise takes the experience of mystical, esoteric, and New Age searchers seriously as a way to engage with a public whose interest in archaeology is often met with contempt and ridicule. More significantly, Anderson suggests that some of our ham-fisted efforts at re-education reflect fundamental ignorance of the values, practices, and interests of these groups. This, in turn, obscures the relationship between long held beliefs among these groups and popular culture which both reflects and, as Nuruddin argues influences, their attitudes toward antiquity.   

The value of these two articles to my work on Sun Ra (see here for a recent summary) is that they bridge the gap between popular culture, especially science fiction, esoteric beliefs, and the antiquity in the contemporary world. Against this backdrop Sun Ra becomes less of an idiosyncratic (pseudo?) intellectual and more of a fellow traveller who makes visible world views that academics rarely encounter, much less understand. The fruitful intersection of jazz (and more popular music, as the influence of the Five Percenters on hiphop is widely known), antiquity, religion, and Afrofuturism (or more broadly science fiction, as in the Nicole Glover album) represents one avenue through which Black, poor, and otherwise disenfranchised groups presented a social critique of academic, religious, and social institutions that they saw as repressive.

As archaeologists we should be aware of these connections and they should make us a bit more careful and deliberate with how we talk about ancient aliens and other popular beliefs in public.

More on the Greenway

Yesterday, I posted a draft of a paper that I’m planning to give (well, “to post”) at the annual CHAT conference. This year, the conference is dedicated to pilgrimage and movement with all the complexities that these words entail. I proposed a paper that considered my every day pilgrimage through a local park which has led me to unpack this break from my everyday life along spatial and temporal lines. 

The more that I’ve mulled this paper over, I can’t help think that it will benefit from some revision. As a way to kick start this process, I’m going to offer some random thoughts here that maybe will find their way into my paper.

First, I’ve been thinking a bit more about my somewhat lazy use of the concept of communitas. In Victor Turner’s work this term refers to the experience of social equality that occurs during pilgrimage or other kinds of ritual life. I think my use of the term would benefit from re-reading Edith Turner’s book Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy (2011). My thinking is that the concept of radical equality experienced through communitas could extend beyond the limits of human community and considered as a way to understand a transformed relationship with our physical environment. I’m less concerned here with the experiences of stones, trees, animals, or house foundations and more interested in considering whether our relationship to these things changes as a result of the suspension of at least some of the rules of every day life. 

More importantly, does this suspension of the rules of everyday life open up the potential to experience space in new and significant ways. It would probably be useful, I suppose, to consider aspects of de Certeau’s arguments in his The Practice of Everyday Life that distinguishes between strategy and tactics, but, if I recall de Certeau correctly he suggests that tactics include every day practice that seeks to complicate and appropriate efforts of the state to structure practices whether through design or such structured encounters as ritual. The role, in this context, of every day rituals, such as the momentary experience of pilgrimage that comes from my morning walk in the park, remains less clear. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the experience of being in the park is shaped in part by the administrative work that defines the space as a park. On the other hand, my ritualized encounter with this space at least questions (if not subverts) the limits of the human work invested to create the controlled landscape that is the park itself.

This brings me to my second point that will require a bit of development. My daily pilgrimage commences when I cross the earthen flood wall that separates the Greenway from my neighborhood. This simple, if mildly transgressive act, of crossing a wall always triggers me to think about the recent outpouring of literature on walls of various kinds (for example). Walls, for all their imposing monumentality, functioned in a wide range of ways. As Randall Maguire’s articles, for example, have shown walls can go from representing a common space for a community (such as the early fences that separated Mexico from the US) to barriers to movement and marks of division. The earthen and concrete walls in Grand Forks, for example, represent protection from the unpredictable and often violent forces of Red River and this function reinforces its role as a barrier between the ordered life of the community and the less controlled forces of nature. The design of the concrete flood walls, with their molded ashlar-like pattern deliberately evoked stone fortifications of antiquity. The earthen walls, whatever their intended aesthetic, would have made some viewers think of the fortifications at Mandan towns such as Double Ditch where ditches and earthen bases for palisades formed barriers. In this context, crossing the wall involved the kind of tactical (sensu de Certeau) move both historically and in the space of Grand Forks, North Dakota that depended upon the intentional misrecognition of the wall’s function. Despite its appearance, the wall isn’t meant as a barrier to human movement at all. This is simply a side effect of its official function to prevent the inundation of the main area of human settlement during the seasonal floods.

So crossing the flood wall requires a tactical act of misrecognition of their function to enter into the space of pilgrimage along the river. This movement initiates the space of communitas where traditional social relations between things and individuals is suspended.

The final thing that I’d like to include in my paper is a brief musing on the “dog park at the end of the universe.” I no longer take my dogs there, in part, because they can’t be trusted around other people or dogs, but also because I find it so very depressing. There’s something about the history of the park that makes setting aside some of it for our dogs to romp and roam intensely sad. The juxtaposition of the former neighborhood homes that stood where the dog park is now creates a melancholy sense of waste or perhaps irreverence. I wonder if I struggled with confronting the modern ability to unsentimentally repurpose a landscape or the expectation that the past will some vanish beneath the pressing need of the present.

Pilgrimage CHAT: Walking the Grand Forks Greenway

Next month, I’m presenting a little paper in the form of a blog post at the 2021 CHAT conference devoted to pilgrimage. I don’t remember what my paper is titled, but here’s the abstract: In April 1997, the Red River of the North overran its bank and inundated the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota forcing over 50,000 residents to evacuate and significant damage to both cities. In the aftermath of this flood, the two cities demolished a number of neighborhoods that stood close to the river, installed a series of massive floodways that run for nearly 15 kms along the course of the Red River, and constructed a new series of pump and lift stations. This work created a massive park, known as the Grand Forks Greenway, of over 8 square kilometers festooned with bike paths, river access, and recreation areas and separated from the residential and commercial areas of the city by a series of imposing earthen and cement flood walls pierced by gates.

I don’t think that’ll be the paper that I write though. In fact, I’m thinking more and more about how I might integrate the notion of pilgrimage to the space of Lincoln Park, a large urban park that is part of the Grand Forks Greenway.

Here’s my first effort to say something compelling.

Daily Pilgrimage, Movement, and Place on the Grand Forks Greenway

Almost every day for the past four or five years, I’ve gone for a walk through Lincoln Park on the Grand Forks, North Dakota Greenway. The walks aren’t terribly long, usually between 3 and 6 miles, and they follow a fairly standard course. They happen all year around from the heat of the summer to all but the coldest days in the winter. My walks take place in the rain, the snow, and the wind. I’m almost always accompanied by one of my two dogs: Argos (aka Argie “The Bargepole”) or Milo (aka “Milsey”). If the dogs were to tell it, they’d say that the walks are for them, but I do remind them that I make these trips without them sometimes and sometimes on my bike. In other words, these walks aren’t just a routines for the dogs, but fundamental to my daily routine.

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Pilgrimages, like most rituals, are types of routines that wrench one out of mundane existence and push one into a different space defined by movement, reflection, and even spirituality. In some cases, of course, a pilgrimage might be a once in a lifetime event, such as the Hajj, but in many cases, pilgrimages can happen more regularly. It seems to me that the key characteristic of a pilgrimage is not its frequency, but its relationship to the mundane aspects of daily life. As such, pilgrimages, as a type of experience, represents a particularly vivid example of the kind of relational category that archaeologists have increasingly used to think about their world.

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My everyday life is deeply embedded in the digital world of screens, emails, documents, and data. My time on walks in the park is distinctly analogue. My mundane world varies relatively little depending on seasons, despite living in place where the seasons are intense. Even during the most bitter cold or the hottest late-summer, during draughts or floods, in the raking light of the winter or the dusty harvest clouds of autumn, emails continue to arrive, text continues to require editing, students continue to want guidance, and colleagues consultation. My daily pilgrimage disrupts my tendency to immerse myself in such mundane tasks and forces me to confront the variability of the seasons and weather, happenstance of encounters in a public space, and my own thoughts as they wander over the course of an hour without the advantage of regular professional (or household) distractions that would allow them to take purchase.

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Part of what allows for the distinction between my daily pilgrimage and what I’ve called my “mundane world” is the space of my daily sojourns. My walk begins ordinarily enough in my backyard and then I head due east down 8th avenue which is interrupted after about 200 meters, by the 8 m tall bulk of a flood wall that forms the western edge of the Grand Forks Greenway. The Greenway runs for nearly 15 km on both sides of the Red River of the North which snakes its way though our small community of around 100,000 people on its way to the Hudson Bay some 1000 km to the north. The river floods regularly as it runs along the bottom of the long vanished Lake Agassiz, a massive glacial lake that discharged some 9,000 or 10,000 years ago, and in 1897 and again in 1997 massive floods nearly destroyed the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The second of these floods prompted the evacuation of the cities and this constituted the largest peacetime evacuation of an American city prior to Hurricane Katrina landfall in New Orleans in 2005.

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My daily pilgrimage passes a pumping station that serves to maintain the back pressure on the Grand Forks sewage and storm drain system and prevent flood waters from flowing through the drains and entering the city. It is here that pipes run beneath the flood wall and through the pump station that I go over the flood wall to enter the Greenway. This part of the Greenway is called Lincoln Park. It’s the largest park in the Greenway system and includes all the amenities common the an American park: walking and cycling trails, a frisbee golf course, some open fields for sports, a dog park, a warming house and, in the winter an ice rink and cross-country ski trails. There are places for picnics and a boat ramp for access to the river. Just south of Lincoln park is a small golf course. 

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This rather ordinary setting seems like a hardly appropriate setting for a pilgrimage, but Lincoln Park does had a somewhat hidden past. Prior the 1997 flood, Lincoln Park was a thriving neighborhood but the creation of the Greenway and the the new network of flood walls required the razing of the homes and an elementary school here which would have stood on the “wet” side of the walls. The remains of this neighborhood, however, haunt the park. Trees continue to mark the routes of roads, the regular pattern of depressing in the park’s well mowed grass follow the rhythms of razed houses, and from time to time bricks, concrete pavement, and gravel paths peak through the grass to remind us of this place’s past. There is a small sculpture and a map made of inlaid bricks commemorating the lost neighborhood, but someone not familiar with the story behind these features might miss their meaning.

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The visible and invisible history of Lincoln Park presents a compelling backdrop to my daily pilgrimages which takes me onto a path that follows the course of the river between the endemic cottonwoods that inhabit the water’s edge and the ornamental cypress and crab apple trees, the elms that line the now vanished streets, and the pine trees that stood at the edges of properties. White tail deer, squirrels, foxes, songbirds, hawks, eagles, owls, and the occasional human runner, canine companion, and occasional park employee, patrolling police officer, and metal detectorist stare my pilgrimage space. The initial, post-flood planning stages for the Greenway emphasized its potential to act as both a recreation area and as a riparian corridor for local and migratory wildlife. At the same time, the various environmental studies of Greenway acknowledged that many of the species present along the river’s course had a long history living in urban environments and sharing their space with both people and our domesticated animals. Like the pipes managed to control the flow of river water back into the city, the riparian corridor does not end at the edges of flood walls, but extends into the neighborhoods that flank the river. 

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The landscape of Lincoln Park contributes to its status as a pilgrimage site by emphasizing that it defies easy definition. It is neither a purely natural space, if such places are indeed possible in the Anthropocene, nor a space dominated entirely by humanity. The visible remains of earlier human activities overgrown and obscured by both natural and cultural processes transform Lincoln Park into the sort of liminal place that characterizes pilgrimage routes. Its temporal state as a place in transition from a tidy small-town neighborhood to corridor designed to both accommodate the spring flood waters and the movement of wildlife ensures that the landscape explicitly resists simple definition. Like so many discussions of time in archaeology, Lincoln Park makes clear the past is not distinct from the contemporary and both exist in a space of blurry boundaries.

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By complicating our every day expectations that the human and the natural occupy tidy categories and the past and contemporary are distinct, the park encourages us to establish a sense of communitas, to use Victor Turner’s fortuitous concept, not only with past and contemporary individuals (and my canine companions), but also with those non-human features of the landscape, from the raking light of the winter sun to the unseen scurrying creatures on the riverbanks or the depressing depressions marking out overgrown roads.

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My daily pilgrimage, then, introduces me to a complicated time and space that is distinct from the tidy definitions traced by the imperious modernity of our daily lives. 

Two Draft Articles on Sun Ra

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a couple of projects that bring the musician, thinker, poet, and performer Sun Ra to bear on archaeology. In fact, I’ve been obsessed enough with Sun Ra to create a category on my blog dedicated to my musings on this artist.

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure where any of this work was going, but by the end of the summer things started to come into focus. 

My first Sun Ra project was a review of a bunch of the new scholarly publications which include some analysis of his work. It’s going to appear in North Dakota Quarterly probably this fall.

It’s called “Whither Sun Ra?” and you can read that review here.

The second piece is more of a work in progress and I’m at the stage of really needing some good feedback on it. I initially had the idea that it could appear in Near Eastern Archaeology and straddle a popular and scholarly audience, but as I wrote it, it inevitably gravitated to a more scholarly vibe. Now I’m wondering whether it might fit better in an academic journal, perhaps one dedicated to Global Antiquity or even Classical Reception (or maybe, in a pinch, an archaeology journal interested in this kind of oblique disciplinary critique).

It’s called, for now, “Not All Ancient Aliens: Black Alternative Archaeologies in the 20th Century” and you can read it here.

I’d love feedback on the second article, which probably benefits from being read alongside the first.

Three Things Thursday

For some reason this week is taking forever. It might be just that time in the semester. I also wonder whether finally getting a bit of writing momentum back has led me to overdo it a bit and maybe burn a bit too much energy for only modest gains. Whatever the reason, it feels like a good time for some good news. So here are three things for your Thursday.

Thing the First

I really enjoyed Dante Angelo, Kelly M. Britt, Margaret Lou Brown, Stacey L. Camp recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. Titled “Private Struggles in Public Spaces: Documenting COVID-19 Material Culture and Landscapes,” it offers a window into one of the few, maturing archaeological studies of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many archaeological projects on the very edge of the present, it’s conclusions are modest, but the methods, challenges, and data offer a window into the potential for archaeological projects that emerge at the very onset of a crisis rather than work to understand a crisis long after it unfolded.

I was particularly impressed by the transnational scope of article and the recognition that contemporary archaeology (and the study of contemporary problems and situations) is not much interested in national boundaries. An archaeology of contemporary climate change, of migration, and of production and consumption habits would follow a similar pattern. The article also negotiates the tension between private and public spaces not only in how we do our work as archaeologists, but also in how we live our lives. In this way, archaeology once again follows tensions present in society as the rise of surveillance culture where even conversations in our home are monitored (and monetized) by ubiquitous digital devices and personal medical choices (and short comings) continue to be matters public debate blurs our expectations of privacy. While Angelo et al. maintained a conservative approach toward documenting private lives in public places and continued to respect traditional notions of public and private, the title of the piece made clear that this continues to be an open question rather than a resolved standard of practice or method. 

Finally, the photo essay itself represents both the tip of a larger archival iceberg and I’m excited to understand how ongoing efforts to document the COVID pandemic will open the door to future analyses and interpretations. It reminds me how important archaeology of the contemporary world is for building the archive of the present and even if our research questions (and goals) applying the rigorous methods developed by archaeology as a discipline will contribute to how future researchers see our world.

Thing the Second

This thing is a form of completely gratuitous self-promotion. As editor of NDQ, I have the privilege of publishing a wide range of authors from undergraduates to grizzled veterans of the writing business. We are pleased to announce that we will publish to the winner of the Colie Hoffman Poetry Prize which goes a woman poet from Huntery College-CUNY. 

Here’s our little announcement.

NDQ is excited to announce our partnership wih the Department of English at Hunter College-CUNY, to pubish the winner of the department’s yearly Colie Hoffman Poetry Prize. Named for Colie Hoffman, an alumna of Hunter’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, the award goes to a female poet in Hunter’s MFA Program who has shown an exceptional blend of imagination and craft in her poetry. Given our admiration for Hoffman and the vibrant pulse of her work, we are thrilled to collaborate with Hunter College in honoring her.

Thing the Third

Last week, the good folks at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota got word that FOUR of their titles were nominated for the North Dakota State Library Association’s  Notable State Government Documents Award. This is the first time that any of our books have been nominated and I feel the press is being recognized for its solid work in the state. The books nominated are: Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook, Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart’s Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean,  Calobe Jackson, Jr., Katie Wingert McArdle, and David Pettegrew’s One Hundred Voices, Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920and Kyle Conway’s Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018

We’re up against some pretty tough competition, particular from our friends at the NDSU Press who celebrated three nomination for the same award!

This is an exciting time for publishing in the Red River Valley!

Writing Ra for Real

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a project that considers how the idiosyncratic musician, intellectual, writer, and visionary, Sun Ra fits into the our understanding of both popular and academic archaeology. It’s a weird and rambling and emergent project that tries to make sense of my interests and my eclectic reading.

For most of the last year or so, I was a lost project, wandering around in some blog posts, reading notes, and play lists. This last month, however, the little dust up between Flint Dibble and the directors of a new documentary on Atlantis gave my work some new life. Here are two blog posts that I wrote in response to the Dibble Dust Up: here and here. You’ll notice some recycling (and some revision on a factual level) in what I’ve written below, but this just shows you how the sausage is made.

Here’s the first 2500 words or so of what I’m working on. I’m not sure what this will be exactly, but more and more I think my goal is to recover the stories of ancient alien visitors from the “enormous condescension” of academic archaeologists. 

Working Title: Not All Ancient Aliens

In 1971 Sun Ra arrived in Egypt for the first time. This is not an early example of the repatriation of some artifact looted in the colonial past nor is it a metonym for a future archaeological discovery. This Sun Ra was an American jazz musician, poet, philosopher, and filmmaker. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, by 1971, Le Sony’r Ra or Sun Ra, had already spent over 20 years developing his view of the Black past and future. During a brief time as a student at Alabama A&M, he experienced an alien visitation or abduction and visited Saturn where he had a meeting with a group of extraterrestrials and, at least in one account, given a vision of his own future (Szwed 2000: 29-30). This encounter initiated a transformation in Herman Blount’s life which led him to change his name to Le Sony’r Ra and to a successful career as a musician and band leader in Chicago, then New York, and finally Philadelphia. While he remains best known for his career as a jazz and avant-garde musician, recently scholars have turned their attention to his literary career which served to inform his larger than life personality and musical legacy. Sun Ra’s band, the Arkestra, melded flamboyant stage shows with free and avant-garde jazz, recordings and performances in which futuristic sounds conjured equally futuristic visions, and poetry, film, and public statements that appear to represent Egypt as the wellspring of global Black culture. At once committed to utopian Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism, Ra mid-century attempts to articulate a vision of a Black past combined the social and technological optimism of the post-war space age with long-standing efforts to imagine a Black past freed from the stains of colonialism and slavery.

The views of Sun Ra, and his fellow travelers, offer a distinct counterpoint to the recent spate of popular documentaries purporting to reveal hidden or suppressed archaeological knowledge. In many cases these documentaries, especially the History Channel’s Ancient Alien series, argue that contemporary archaeologists have overlooked evidence that extraterrestrials visited the Earth in ancient times and constructed monuments in Egypt, Central America, and elsewhere. According to these program, aliens may have contributed to the development of sophisticated technologies, science, and culture. In other cases, these programs revealed how archaeological sites unlocked profound mystical or spiritual truths or revealed previously unrecognized connections between cultures. In general, the claims made by these programs follow predictable trajectories and rely on a blend of real archaeology, conspiracy theories, flashy production values, and fuzzy conjectures (Turner and Turner 2021 for a recent survey of these ideas). More damning still, these programs often both rely upon and reinforce racist assumptions that various past societies, especially those that emerged in what is sometimes called the Global South, could not have developed technology or monumental structure without outside assistance. Many of the ideas trotted out on these programs rely on theories developed over the first half of the twentieth century and rejected by generations of archaeologists.

In the last decade, with the growth of social media, efforts to counter pseudo-archaeology and alternative archaeologist have redoubled. Some of this stems from a growing frustration with pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Archaeologists see this as related to the declining status of experts and higher education at a moment in history where the problems facing human society are not only complex, but also existential. Racial injustice, political and economic inequality, forced migration, and, most of all, climate change present a formidable slate of global challenges only exacerbated by the contemporary pandemic and the rise of conspiracy-driven anti-science. Archaeologists have seen nefarious consequences to the tendency for pseudo-archaeologists to simplify complex situations by offering monocausal explanations, such as the influence of ancient aliens, against a backdrop of often racist assumptions about the capacities of ancient people. Oddly enough, the eagerness to counter the most visible examples of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media has led to a tendency among professional and academic archaeologists to simplify some of the complex contexts where the idea that extraterrestrials introduced ancient technology or architecture developed. In particular, this paper will explore the appearance of alternative archaeologies and histories in mid-20th century Black culture with a particular emphasis on the work of Sun Ra. In some mid-century Black contexts, arguments for extraterrestrial interventions and other unorthodox imaginings of the Black past represented efforts to adapt traditional knowledge to the modern world, to subvert contemporary racist power structures, and to construct identities independent from the painful legacy of slavery and colonialism.

There is a growing realization among archaeologists that the discipline of archaeology has not served Black communities well. This has contributed to a sense of urgency behind calls to recognize the distinct character of a wide range of Black knowledge of the past as well as to reform archaeology as a discipline. In many cases, distinctive Black reinterpretations of the past developed alongside similar white understandings, but had fundamentally different goals. Ongoing efforts to suppress the spread of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media and on the internet, however, have often failed to recognize the diverse legacies of ideas associated with ancient extraterrestrial visitors and mystical homelands. These same ideas produced different legacies: in one context they lent support to racist and far right ideologies, and in another fueled utopian visions of racial justice and real gains in social, economic, cultural, and political power in Black communities. This article will excavate a test trench through the work of Sun Ra with the goal of sampling some of the roles that ancient aliens and the myth of Atlantis played in certain Black alternative archaeologies that emerged in the mid-20th century.

Sun Ra’s personal account of abduction by extraterrestrial did not produce an entirely consistent set of beliefs or understandings. It appears, however, at various times that he understood that ancient Egyptians were not only the wellspring of Black civilization, but that Black people and possible Black Egyptians were also extraterrestrials. This conflation of Afrocentrism and ancient aliens informed Ra’s onstage personal where he combined futuristic jazz and outfits that evoked both a pastiche of ancient Egyptian motifs and futuristic garb that hinted of space travel, UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. It seems certain that Ra developed his interest in the origins of Black society in Egypt, often called Afrocentrism, the work of authors such as George G.M. James, whose book Stolen Legacy: the Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians appeared in 1954, but who had taught at Alabama A&M for a time before Sun Ra’s arrival there as a student. James was not the only scholar making claims that Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern civilization, so privileged by white scholars, derived from Egyptian civilization, but his book appeared in Sun Ra’s library and was widely enough to read and republished to attract an attack from no less than Mary Lefkowitz some 40 years after its appearance. In late 1940s and 1950s Chicago, Sun Ra gathered around him a group of seekers who called themselves the Thmei Society and this group read voracious and discussed ideas found in works as varied as the 19th century anti-Catholic Alexander Hislip’s The Two Babylons, or Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship o f Nimrod and his Wife (1853), various diffusionist and hyperdiffusionist world views such as Grafton Elliot Smith’s The Ancient Egyptians and Their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe (1911) and Children of the Sun (1923) by his sometime collaborator W.J. Perry, and Albert Churchward, who wrote Origin and Evolution of the Human Race (1920) and whose brother would advocate for the lost continent of Mu in the Indian Ocean. Also present in his library were the works of E.A. Wallis Budge, William M. Ramsay, and James Henry Breasted as well as the mystical writings of Helena Blatavsky, Egar Cayce, and others who sought to reveal the undiscovered capacities of human intelligence from past cultures (Szwed 2000; Youngquist 2016). The Thmei Society produced a series of provocative broadsheets which they circulated in Chicago’s Washington Square Park where a cross section of the city’s Black community congregated to enjoy the outdoors, socialize, proselytize, and engage in debates (Sites 2019). In this space, Sun Ra and his Thmei Society colleagues would have had conversations with a wide range of groups including members of the Nation of Islam who frequented the park after their transfer of their headquarters from Detroit to Chicago in the late 1940s.

By the late 1950s, Sun Ra and his band, dubbed the Arkestra, had started to perform and record their unique form of interstellar jazz across the city. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 inaugurated the Space Age and drew the Ra’s alien abductors even closer to Earth By the early 1960s and Ra and the Arkestra’s relocation to New York City, where he and his band continued to work the probe the ambiguous origins of both Sun Ra himself and Black people. This was an incredibly active period for Sun Ra who not only continued to release music from his Chicago days, but also rehearsed, performed, and recorded almost continuously with the Arkestra. As a sample of significant albums released during the 1960s that demonstrate Sun Ra’s interest in both cosmic and mystical. For example, in 1966, tracks recorded in the late 1950s in Chicago were released as the Nubians of Plutonia in 1966. From 1961-1963, Sun Ra recorded albums such as Bad and Beautiful, Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, and When the Sun Comes Out which combine improvisational music inspired by cosmic themes often marked by electronic instruments with exotic percussion and instrumentation. The names of tracks likewise reveal a blend of Egyptian and cosmic inspiration: “Ankh,” “Solar Symbols,” “The Nile,” and “Infinity of the Universe.” This massively productive period in the Arkestra’s history culminated in their 1965 album Heliocentric World of Sun Ra, which many consider Sun Ra’s masterpiece and the most concise introduction to his distinctive form of cosmic jazz.

In 1969, a number of recording made toward the end of the decade were released as Atlantis. The B side consists of a 21-minute long track titled “Atlantis” that was recorded at Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Center of African Culture in New York. Olatunji was a Nigerian immigrant who came to the US for college and became immersed in the vibrant Black music and cultural scene in New York City while studying at NYU. His influential use of drumming and African rhythms had exerted a significant influence of Sun Ra’s use of percussion and, according to Szwed, the two musicians often exchanged band members. Olatunji was well known among New York jazz musicians and had performed with John Coltrane and influenced contemporary recordings of Archie Shepp (especially his album The Magic of Ju-Ju). Atlantis also witnessed one of Sun Ra’s most ambitious efforts to integrate electronic instruments, such as his famous “Solar Sound Organ” and the Clavinet into his recordings. The merging of the futuristic sounds of electronic instruments and the polyrhythmic African drums reflected Ra’s commitments to both Afrocentric views of the past and Afrofuturist views.

 It might come as some surprise, then, to learn that Sun Ra’s invocation of Atlantis likely derived, at least in part, from his reading of a wide range of pseudo-archaeological, pseudo-historical, theosophical, and mystical works on Atlantis.  This is not subtle. For example, track titles on this album evoked various visions of Atlantis: “Mu,” for example, refers to the lost continent proposed by Augustus Le Plongeon, whose 19th century work in the Yucatan involved trying to connect the Mayan to Egypt and Atlantis. His works influenced the theosophical thinking of Helena Blavatsky and Minnesota politician and lawyer Ignatius L. Donnelly, whose late-19th century writings on Atlantis represents an important landmark in 20th century pseudo-archaeological writing about the “lost continent”  (It is worth noting that throughout his political career Donnelly was a Radical Republican and later a Agrarian populist). The second track is titled “Lemuria” which evoked work of zoologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913) who argued that Lemuria once stood between Africa and India before sinking into the sea. His ideas both anticipated theories of continental drift and found favor as the home of humanity in the works of Helena Blavatsky. “Yucatan” and “Bimini” likely refer to various ideas of Atlantis in the work of the influential medium Edgar Cayce (1876-1945) whose books, including On Atlantis, appear in Ra’s library and who advocated for racist theories of polygenism for humanity (which cast a shadow over Ra’s thinking on race as well).It may be that the greatest influence on Sun Ra’s vision of Atlantis came from the Alsatian mystic and pseudo-archaeologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961).

Schwaller de Lubicz is exactly the kind of pseudo-archaeologist that academic archaeologists have condemned. He argued that the weathering on the Sphinx and its enclosure was the result of water and this suggested some of the monuments in Egypt should pre-date the Biblical flood and connected them with the destroyed continent of Atlantis. This allowed some readers (and many pseudo-archaeologists) to connect an Egypt and the construction of its great monuments to a much more ancient culture that was destroyed by the flood. This, like so much pseudo-archaeology, this argument sought to disassociate the Ancient Egyptian known to archaeologists (and by extension contemporary Egyptians) from many of its greatest monuments. In the hands of some, this served to sever the Egyptian cultural achievement from a Black, African past and contribute to racist arguments for the primitive and subordinate character of Black culture in the contemporary world. 

In this context, the 1968 English translation of Erich von Däniken’s Erinnerungen an die Zukunft which appeared in the year of its publication as Chariots of the Gods, seems almost superfluous, as does the fleet of late 1960s and early 1970s books on Atlantis that spurred Impulse! records to re-release of Sun Ra’s 1969 album of the same name. Sun Ra’s impromptu 1971 tour of Egypt where he encountered an Egyptian audience that was as ambivalent regarding his views on history as they were enthusiastic about his music, did little to discourage his theatrical explorations at the intersection of the space age and antiquity. Ra and members of the Arkestra filmed themselves in full regalia dancing among Egyptian ruins. During a visit to the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid the electricity failed, but Sun Ra was able to lead his party back to daylight. One of the members of his party, the German musician, poet, and philosopher Hartmut Geerken recalled Sun Ra saying: “Why do we need light, Sun Ra, the sun is here“ (Szwed 2000: 293). Earlier in the same year, Sun Ra was living in a house in Oakland provided to him by the Black Panthers and teaching a class at the University of California-Berkeley titled “The Black Man and the Cosmos.” The course featured a combination of esoteric readings, lectures, and musical performances and attracted more Black community members than Cal students. It would appear that Sun Ra’s ongoing performances, teaching, and travels complemented the growing interest in alternative archaeologies in the mainstream media, but did not appear to derive from them. They nevertheless combined to form a compelling backdrop Sun Ra’s 1974 cult classic film Space is the Place. In this film, Sun Ra clad in Egyptianizing costumes and flying a spaceship comes to Earth to save Black people from the daily injustices and inequality by transporting them to another world through the use of music. At once campy and breathtakingly earnest, Space is the Place reveals that Sun Ra’s blending of futurist and ancient iconography is more than just the playful juxtaposition of opposites, but part of a wider view of Black culture existing outside of the boundaries of time and space.

Graffiti

A correspondence with Justin Walsh of the International Space Station Archaeological Project nudged me to return to Susan A. Phillips’s work on graffiti in Los Angeles. I had read some of her articles on graffiti and its relationship to Los Angeles history and late-20th-century gang culture, but for reasons that are hard to understand I had neither integrated this into my chapter on cities in my book, nor had read her rather recent book The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti.

It goes without saying that Phillips work is fantastic especially as she traces the intermingling of Los Angeles urban history (and ecology) and the practices and places of graffiti. It gets even more intriguing when she tracks the history of urban writing (up through tagging) — in the era before large scale graffiti mitigation and the rise of massive, roller assisted, street art — through the 1990s and anchors these in the significant subcultures in the Los Angeles area. The role of hobos, railroad workers, punks, immigrants, military men, neighborhood kids, queers, and various other vibrant subcultures made their marks on the urban landscape. 

As a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, I had always been fascinated by the graffiti that I saw especially on schools that had been mothballed around north Wilmington. (I remember vividly the massive cruciform graffito of The Who on the side of Forward Junior High School as a kid and wondering about it). Most of this graffiti was mystifying to me. I didn’t understand tags, street art, or any of the other conventions, but I did admire the appearance of names and art across the landscape that I knew so well. 

One of the really curious things about my community here in North Dakota is that there is almost no graffiti anywhere. There are a few odd marks on the Washington Street underpass and of course the rail yard ensures that we have a constant flow of decorated train cars through town. I’ve heard there was some painting on the tunnel under Route 2 near Wilder School years back, but my impression is that it’s gone. There is an occasional tag or stencil in the tunnel under Columbia Road on UND’s campus, but that’s usually painted over. Remarkably the city is defined by its flood walls, but I’ve never seen any graffiti on these wall (and I frequent the the parks created by the flood walls). As Mos Def quipped: “there’s a city full of walls to post complaints at.” But, maybe the lack of graffiti suggests that there is very little reason for the kind of pent up anxieties that manifested in graffiti or that the youthful exuberance that supported the desire to make one’s name known has been channeled into other, undoubtedly more “wholesome” (or at least more closely supervised) activities. 

One place where I did recognize graffiti was on UND’s campus, particularly in the Wesley College building sand I’m still kicking myself for not documenting it as intensively as we should have. Some of it we did photograph, such as these inscribed bricks found on the east wall of Robinson-Sayre Hall and these inscribed widows pains from Sayre Hall

Some of the best graffiti however was found inscribed into the solid wood furniture that had made its way into the soon to be demolished buildings. The graffiti here followed conventions and practices tracked by Phillips in many situations across Los Angeles. The writers, almost certainly students, carved their names, their initials, their feelings, and an assortment of dates into the table top along with band names and lyrics, fraternity and sorority names, and various other sentiments common to college students.

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The earliest graffito on the desk dates to 1956.

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But the most interesting is a sequence of dates starting in 1975 and updated into the 1990s (and the last date added was 2012).

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This table most likely was destroyed during the demolition of the building but it represents a remarkable find demonstrating over 60 years of continuity in student practices on campus. In an era replete with invented traditions, it is curious that we didn’t find anything more remarkable (or worth saving) in this far more authentic example of student culture.

What makes it all the more painful is that the rapid transformation of our campus over the last few years has made such long-lasting artifacts more and rare. Solid wood tables, chairs, and surfaces continuously visible for decades have become a rarity on our campus. In their place is an assortment of quickly discarded fiber board furniture, hard plastic chairs that have shorter lifespans than even the technologically dependent classrooms where they stand, and new, unblemished modern surfaces. These clean and disposable surfaces and contexts are obviously ironic. They offer new and prospective students the feeling of recently renovated hotel, prepare just for them, while obscuring the real marks of generations of students, faculty, and staff. They mimic the historical architectural forms of collegiate Gothic buildings with their suggestions of continuity and persistence, while replacing decades-old furnishing with the latest in laminated particle board and moulded plastic. In short, campus leaders eagerly transform the materiality of their institutions into the kind of benign (and sanitary) non-places expected of their short term residents (and their parents), while assuring the students that they can, figurative, make their mark on campus as part of a peerless tradition (that is neatly erased in time for the incoming class’s arrival).

I had the good fortune of attending Ohio State in the 1990s before the campus and its surroundings had become gentrified. Some of my fondest memories revolve around encountering the burry division between campus and the gritty surrounding community and realizing two contradictory things. First, the patina on campus reminded me that I was just a visitor here and one of many such visitors who had lived, studied, worked, and played in this place. But then, this also encouraged me to recognize that my ephemeral marks on campus — whether graffito or a well-trod path or a memory deeply inscribed in a particular place — contributed to its material form in a persistent way. This created a sense of connection which parallels some of Susan Phillips work on graffiti and one that I worry that I not only failed to document rigorously when I did see it on UND’s campus, but also sorely miss here at UND.