Good Friday, the Epitaphios, and COVID-19

This week is Holy Week for many Orthodox Christians, but like last year, the COVID pandemic has changed some of the basic rituals of Orthodox life. Giorgos Papantoniou and Thanasis Vionis in a very recent article in the journal Ethnoarchaeology titled “Popular Religion and Material Responses to Pandemic: The Christian Cult of the Epitaphios during the COVID-19 Crisis in Greece and Cyprus.

Papantoniou and Vionis document how practices surrounding the Epitaphios ritual changed in Greece and Cyprus during the pandemic. The Epitaphios is an elaborately decorated wooden bier meant to symbolize the tomb of Christ. The decoration of the bier, generally done by women, is a long-standing tradition during Holy Week that precedes a ritual procession of the Epitaphios by the entire community. The procession of the Epitaphios culminates in the Good Friday mass.

(As an aside I have the fondest memories of watching the Epitaphios processions at East in Athens. It felt like it caused the city to pause for a moment and brought various neighborhoods together both to mourn Christ’s crucifixion, but also to start the final crescendo toward the release of Easter.)

Papantoniou and Vionis document the various ways that people adapted the Epitaphios traditions and rituals to accommodate lockdowns and bans on gatherings. For example, some individuals decorated home made biers in their own homes converting a community and public tradition into a private one that could then be shared on social media with a wider community. They also documented how the church transformed the Good Friday procession of the Epitaphios, another event that precipitated a heighten sense of community typically manifest in the bustling collective ritual, into a remote rite where the community engages with the ritual movement of the Epitaphios from a distance or in virtual ways.

The authors suggest that studying the changes that the pandemic brought to the Epitaphios traditions and rituals offers a model for how rituals change during crisis and both reveals certain underlying values that structure the practices and demonstrates how crises can prompt the adaption of rites. While their research has the feeling of being rather preliminary, it offers an intriguing lens through which to think about materiality during the COVID pandemic by considering a ritual with a rather formal structure and practices. It may be that their work is a point of departure, then, for studies of the post-pandemic world that consider the changes that COVID wrought in our everyday lives.

For all my colleagues and friends who observe, have a blessed and restorative Holy Week! 

Final Bit and Bobs and What This Book Is Not

This week, I’m tying up some little bits and bobs throughout my book manuscript with the hope that I can submit it one week from tomorrow! You can read more about this long simmering book project here.

As part of that work, I’ve put together a brief statement on what this book is not. I suppose these kinds of statements are rather generic in contemporary academic writing. They’re efforts to gently guide that hand of readers (reviewers!) away from weakness in a work and toward the idea that I included and excludes some things deliberate in an effort to sculpt the work into a coherent book (or something like that).

In many ways, this section, title “What This Book Is Not” might tell folks more about what the book is than anything else.

At this juncture it is probably important to define what this book does not do. This book will not explore in a sustained way the important work of forensic archaeologists which overlaps with archaeology of the contemporary world in its frequent interest in the recent past, but also has developed a unique set of methods, practices, and problems that relate to its development in a judicial and legal context (e.g. Groen et al. 2015). This book also does not offer a sustained discussion of issues surrounding heritage and heritage management in a contemporary context. While these are important area for understanding how archaeology shapes and reflects contemporary social, cultural, and political concerns, there is a massive body of literature on these topics that often overlaps with archaeology of the contemporary world. For example, the recent volume, titled Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices (Harrison et al. 2020) features many of the same scholars who have lent their voices to archaeology of the contemporary world. The scholars share an interest in interrogating the ambiguously defined “future” for whom heritage managers traditionally preserve a community’s natural and cultural heritage. In contrast scholars such as Randal McGuire’s and the Ludlow Collective not only examined lives of the miners and their families involved in the Ludlow strike and massacre, but also engaged contemporary organized labor to commemorate and remember these events. Christopher Matthews (2020), Paul Shackel (Schackel and Little 2014: 85-93), Laurie Wilke (2000; 2001), Krysta Ryzewski (2017), and many others have worked with contemporary and descendant communities to understand, protect, and preserve their shared heritage. This work will appear throughout this book, but since the complexities of contemporary heritage have developed its own vast body of literature, it will not be address here specifically.

Finally, this book will not stay in its lane and remain narrowly focused on the work done by disciplinary archaeologists. Instead, the following chapters will often draw on work by scholars of material culture, geology, media culture, history, art, and literature both to contextualize the interests of archaeologists of the contemporary world and to outline the transdisciplinary space of present and future work. Along those lines, I make reference to larger political and culture trends that stimulated various developments in the archaeology of the contemporary world. For example, the environmental movement of the 1970s inspired research into contemporary discard as much as a growing interest in behavioral archaeology and formation processes. The growing interest in things in archaeology parallels critiques of material culture in public rhetoric, in literature, and in other academic disciplines. Needless to say, that our growing awareness of human-caused climate change informs archaeology in a transdisciplinary way and supports a critical engagement with concepts like the Anthropocene. The parallel development of environmental history likewise contributes to how we understand the archaeology of landscapes, cities, and the countryside in the post-war period. As the final chapter of this volume shows, the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests surrounding George Floyd’s murder, and the deadly and disruptive riot in Washington, DC are already exerting a catalyzing influence over not only archaeology, but many other disciplines and academic and activist approaches to contemporary culture. The abundant cross-pollination in archaeology of the contemporary world has shaped the tendency of this book to reach easily across fields to create a sense for not only the past and present range of disciplinary practices but also its future.

Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience: An (almost) Final Bibliography

I’m almost done my second draft of my book manuscript and as part of that work, I have an almost final bibliography for my book. Readers of this blog know that my book is on the archaeology of contemporary American culture and you can check out the first drafts of most of the book’s chapters here.

The book has a pretty significant bibliography as one might expect from this kind of survey. While there are better, or at least more focused, bibliographies available. I’d recommend the bibliography of Alfredo González-Ruibal’s An Archaeology of the Contemporary Era (2019) or even Rodney Harrison and Esther Breithoff’s recent article-length review in the 2017 Annual Review of Anthropology 46(1): 203-221.

In any event, I think that my bibliography is a bit different from theirs and might be of interest to a graduate student or someone just dipping their toes in the field. At the same time, it is very much a works cited.

You can download my bibliography here in all its 36 page glory!

Afterword: COVID, George Floyd Protests, and the Capitol Riots

Today’s blog post is a bit later than usual because it contains the final draft of a chapter for my book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience

These are very, very rough drafts. The citations are not entirely complete and they’re about 1000 words shorter than they’ll be when they’re folded together to make a coherent(-ish) book. This also includes working on transitions between the chapters and filling out the references. 

You can read a very rough outline of my book proposal here. The book is about 60% survey and 40% a cultural and methodological study of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. As a result, a significant part of the book will tend toward the descriptive. My hope is that the 40% of the book where I try to do some cultural history isn’t so far off the mark (or so mundane) to be uninteresting or, worse still, produce an archaeology that is merely illustrating well-known history from texts.  

Here are the first drafts of all ten chapters with the latest in bold:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

Chapter 5: Borders, Migrants, and the Homeless

Chapter 6: Camps, Campus, and Control

Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City

Chapter 8: Extractive Industry, Housing, and Climate Change in the Bakken

Afterword: COVID, George Floyd Protests, and the Capitol Riots

As always, if you have observations, constructive criticism, or just unmitigated hatred of everything that I’m doing here, please do let me know! 

Recent Research on Mid Century Grand Forks

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll have encountered some of my recent work on the mid-century architecture and landscape of Grand Forks, North Dakota. That said, I’m giving a paper today at the North Dakota CLG conference which presents the work that I’ve done with my wife, Susan Caraher, on mid-century Grand Forks alongside some significant recent work done by the folks in Bismarck.  

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’re probably pretty familiar with what I’m going to say in this paper, but I’ve added some snazzy powerpoint slides and I think the perspective offered in this paper is rather more polished than in other iterations.

If you’re interested in hearing me give this paper in the flesh, the conference is open to the public and registration is free. You can register for today’s session here.

Or you can read the paper that I’ll deliver here: Recent Research on Mid-Century Grand Forks.

Beginnings and Endings

Over spring break, I took time away from high priority writing to recharge my batteries a bit, but much like a college student who puts $10 of gas in their car and counts the days to the next paycheck, I feel like I’ve probably have a put a bit too little into the tank for the amount I need to drive, but we’ll see!!

This morning, I’ve been putting the final touches on a chapter that I really like in my long simmering book project. It starts with a discussion of ruin porn (that is photographs of ruined industrial and urban landscapes) and considers how the ambiguity of urban spaces and ruins created places ideally suited both for protests and for archaeology’s distinctive ability to explore diverse historical and contemporary contexts. To be honest, parts of the chapter are a mess, but I feel like it’s a GOOD mess. You can read an earlier draft of the chapter here (PDF).

Here’s the chapter’s lede (for my use of ledes, go here):

The orderly arrangement of workforce housing camps offers one pole in our experience of the Bakken oil patch. Their tidy and controlled appearance reflected the aspirations for the orderly extraction of oil from sometimes unruly and reticent Bakken formation. As the archaeology of camps and campuses have shown in other contexts, the contrast between the evident order of the spaces and their use over time both reveals the persistence of certain orderly aspects of these sites. The arrange of concrete slabs in Slab City, for example, organizes the arrangement of the contemporary squatter community and, the Nevada Peace Camp developed in a more organized way, in part, owing to its proximity to the very military installation that the camp sought to protest. At the same time, the outward order of campus and camp did more to obscure than the eliminate the more dynamic, adaptive, and subversive signs of regular use, as the consistent appearance of alcohol bottles in excavations of dry campuses reveals.

The next chapter considers contemporary industrial landscapes and their ruins. From our vantage point in the Bakken oil patch of Western North Dakota, we can recognize how the character of the 21st-century oil boom depended upon the distinctive nature of the Middle Bakken oil deposits, the technologies of drilling and hydraulic fracturing, and the half-century of extractive industrial development in the region. While this book will unpack the complexities of the contemporary Bakken boom in the next chapter, this chapter will trace how landscapes defined by extraction, industrial production, and urbanism present distinctive opportunities to critique the expectations of capitalism and modern aspirations for production and consumption. Scenes of protest set against the overstated claims of economic development as well as the haunting specters of abandonment and decay trace the uneven rewards of capitalism and the blurry boundaries between the human and natural worlds.  

Here’s the conclusion:

This sprawling chapter extends from the gritty representations of ruin porn to the rhizomatic networks of flows that pool and eddy around protest sites and coalesce in the material form of the contemporary city. The complexities of the contemporary city and industrial ruins provide a backdrop for protests against racial, economic, and environmental injustice precisely because these places resist easy categorization and remain open for transgressive and transformational forms of expression. The emphasis on flows that are constitutive of urban landscapes parallels our recognition that things, whether media objects, discarded consumer goods, or newly acquired devices, represent the momentary coalescing of global networks with their wide range of social, political, and economic contexts. The ability of archaeology to unpack these diverse contexts allows us to understand the implications of ruins as spaces that cultivate transgressive acts, understand the limits of our ontological categories of human and nature, and reflect on foreclosed future and the contingency of capital. The final chapter of this book will finally reach the Bakken oil patch where in the second decade of the 21st century many keys flows constituent of American society came together in a dynamic and precarious archaeological landscape.

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Writing, and Hope

Next week is spring break and this means that the semester has only six weeks or so left. It also means that spring deadlines are barreling at me with alarming speed. This is both invigorating and challenging, of course, but I suppose the on-rush of deadlines, overlapping obligations, and complicated priorities is part of what makes academic life is so intoxicating to so many people.

This week’s Three Thing Thursday will focus on spring time and spring semester hope.

Thing the First

I’ve made no secret of my attitude toward hybrid and hyflex teaching this semester. I’ve come to dislike the grid of black boxes that constitute most of my Zoom meetings with students and dividing my attention between faceless and largely unresponsive students on Zoom and face-full and rather more responsive students in the classroom. 

That being said, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the work done by students in my History 101 class. As the number suggests, this class is an introductory level history class with a range of students from freshmen to graduating seniors. They mostly work in groups and do weekly assignments that involve both short form writing (500-1000 word essays) and both the synthesis of secondary source material and the analysis of primary source material.

Because of room capacity restrictions, I meet with each group for only about 40 minutes per week, and during this time, I lay out in detail the weekly work and give detailed feedback on previous assignments. The groups have time to ask questions, get comments clarified, and indulge their curiosity about the weekly subjects. As one might expect, the students are not particularly eager to engage with me during the class sessions, but the work that they’re producing in their groups is among the best that I’ve every encountered in my five or so years of running a class on this basic model. 

In other words, despite the hybrid Zoom situation, despite COVID, and despite all the other challenges of this strange academic year, my students are generally outperforming my classes during more typical semesters. I don’t think this is because I’m doing better as an instructor. I think it’s because the students have started to not only adapt, but also figured out how thrive in this strange learning environment.

Thing the Second 

I’m having fun writing this semester. While I don’t have a tremendous amount of time to commit to sustained writing projects, I’m finding little windows to write and savoring those moments. Right now, I’m trying to finish up the conclusion of my book project. This is a strange thing to write as I don’t want to be so arrogant to suggest that my book resolves in some kind of structured way. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that any kind of resolution offed in the conclusion somehow reflects reality. In other words, I don’t want to ever imply that my book could represent a plausible or totalizing reflection of the world. So, I’m trying to wrap up what I’ve said in my various chapters and then open the book up again to the complexities of the real world. This has turned out to be a challenge!

I’m also starting to work with David Pettegrew on a short piece about the Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. It’s wonderful to dip my toes back into the world of Early Christian archaeology and architecture and familiarize myself with some recent work and some older works that I haven’t looked at since the early 21st century! I’m enjoying thinking about the archaeology and architecture of these buildings with eyes refined by 15 years of more detailed study Early Christian buildings and their contexts. 

Finally, I have lots of bits and bobs projects to finish that involve filling in a little gap here and editing a little thing there. I really have come to enjoy these opportunities to think more carefully about my writing in a narrowly defined context. For so long I’ve struggled to put words on the page in a consistent way and worked to find ways to get over my writers’ block. Now, I feel like I can start to build some habits that allow me to not only write, but even to write reflectively and reflexively.

Thing the Third   

I can’t help feel a certain amount of hope the kind of year. Over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog I posted a couple poems from our forthcoming issue (88.1/2 for those keeping track at home!). The poems speak of the promise of spring (no matter how fragile and fleeting) as well the possibility for hope in a world full of potential. 

At the risk of being maudlin, do go and enjoy some poetry! 

Concluding my Book

Over the last couple of months I’ve been struggling to write the conclusion to my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. In part, I found it difficult because my book is a broad survey, and there wasn’t a natural way to conclude an argument. I also struggled to make sense of the book that I wrote against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the violent assault on the Capitol in January 2021. It seems like these things should shape the book that I wrote even if the book was largely finished as 2020 unfolded.

Right now, my plan is to write a conclusion that tries to connect what I’ve set out in the book to the events of 2020. It’s not a pretty thing, in part, because the events of 2020 caught me so much by surprise. As such, the conclusion is both kind of a confession and an effort to make my work matter. Here’s a bit of the draft.

Conclusion

It is conventional to end a book with a conclusion that summarizes the book’s arguments and content and perhaps points in future directions. For a book like this, a conventional conclusion would start with a return to the Alamogordo landfill and archaeological and cultural stratigraphy of a contemporary excavation. From there it would reflect on the emergence of garbology and various approaches to discard as a way to understand and critique 20th and 21st century consumer culture. Attention to consumer culture in historical archaeology provided a platform for a broad study of things in the contemporary world which, in turn, engages questions of materiality, ontology, and agency. The parallel rise in media archaeology with its emphasis on both material technology as well as the immaterial experiences of computer games and growing reach of digital technologies in archaeological practice. The archaeology of our digital devices and experiences returns us to the world ushered in by Atari games and the landfill in the desert.

The second half of the book takes us to the Bakken oil patch and uses it as a way to frame a series of landscapes where archaeology—as well as history, anthropology, political science, and other disciplines—offers insight into the contemporary situation. Archaeological methods, for example, and the discipline’s attention to discarded objects and traces holds forth the potential to make visible the surreptitious movements of the homeless and undocumented migrants across national borders. Archaeology can likewise unpack the tension between the neatly organized spaces of military camps and college campuses and evidence for resistance and dynamic strategies of adaptation and reuse. Archaeology brings a similar attention to the processes of change to the analysis of industrial spaces and urban areas. Efforts to document often ephemeral sites of protest and activism whether adjacent to military bases or embedded in the urban fabric have not only served to document the character of contemporary social movements but also to preserved the material culture of these events for future generations. In concluding the book with a detailed consideration of the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch, I once again connect archaeology of the contemporary world to the long-standing interest in extractive industries among historical archaeologists and suggest that our interest in things and materiality emphasizes the link between consumer culture and contingent labor in the US as well as the archaeology of contemporary climate change.

This summary of the book’s contents reflects its engagement with significant trends in the discipline of archaeology as well as in contemporary political, social, and economic concerns. The emphasis on trash and pollution, exploitative labor regimes, undocumented and forced migrants, marginalized groups, and climate change traces issues pushed to the fore over the last thirty years and makes clear that archaeology of the contemporary world also represents an archaeology for the contemporary world. That said, very little of the trajectory traced in the preceding pages prepared me for the events that formed the backdrop to the completion of this book. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, and the attempted coup in January 2021 made the concerns at the center of this book appear if not trivial, at least less urgent and pressing than the events that dominated our collective attention over the last twelve months. As a result, the result of this conclusion will reflect on the “long 2020” and consider how archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world might shed light on the events that defined this extraordinary span of time.

Before I make any effort to analyze the past twelve months, I need to acknowledge my position of privilege. I’m a white, middle class, tenured, university professor without children and with a supportive partner and friends. This situation allowed me not only to weather the storm of 2020 but also to remain academically productive. This situation has caused me a great deal of ambivalence. I recognize that my privileged position has allowed me to continue to advance my career while others are losing their positions or have had to reorder their professional priorities in response to the pandemic’s disruption of traditional schooling or the need to care for sick or vulnerable family and community members. In contrast, the disruption of my traditional summer field seasons opened up more time for me to write and think intensively about various projects. I also admit that as a white scholar living in a predominantly white community, I was relatively isolated from the racial tensions that the killing of George Floyd brought to a boil and that triggered BLM protests and activism across the US. This sense of isolation is evident in the preceding pages which consistently struggled to articulate and define the role of race in the study of contemporary material culture. The violent invasion of the Capitol in Washington DC in January 2021 occurred as I finished revising the first draft of this manuscript. Like most people, I was horrified at the events and reminded that my privileged isolation from the tensions, anger, and violence just beneath the surface of American society did not absolve my complicity or apathy. The following afterword is an effort to direct my reading of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience toward the events of 2020. My hope is that this serves not so much as a conclusion to this book, but another chapter what must be an urgent and ongoing conversation.

Burying the Ledes

Over the last two months I’ve been going back through my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience tidying up citations, tightening my prose, and doing some proofreading. It’s not my favorite task, but there’s something vaguely gratifying about it.

I’m adding two things to each chapter that connects it to the rest of the book and breathes a little air into the density of my writing. One thing is what I call a lede, which attempts to speak more casually about the topic of the chapter and to fit it into the larger organization of the book. The other thing is a brief conclusion, usually no more than a paragraph, that wraps the chapter up and sends the reader on their way.

In the best of times, this kind of garnish could be pretty fun to write and think through. These, of course, are not the best of times. I’ve missed my manuscript and I’m entering a murderers row of deadlines which like the 1920s Yankees line up to hit anything out of the park.

That said, here’s the lede and conclusion for my latest chapter:

Lede

The first half of the book began at the edge of the Alamogordo landfill and explored the intersection of waste, consumer culture, and things in American society. The second half of the book will step back from objects and their movement from things desired to things discarded and consider the materiality of particular situations that define key parts of the American experience. Much of the second half of this book is informed by my work with the North Dakota Man Camp Project. This project documented the social and material conditions in workforce housing in western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. Our work in the Bakken intersected with a wide range of situations ranging from 21st-century displacements, to the structure and organization of camps, new forms of urbanism, industrial archaeology, and the archaeology of extractive industries. Just as the Alamogordo Atari Excavations introduced this book, the North Dakota Man Camp Project will serve as a kind of conclusion the book by anchoring this relatively wide ranging (and not always strictly archaeological) treatments of various situations and landscapes in a materially and historically specific context.

Over the next four chapters, this book will follow threads that culminate in the conclusion. The next chapter, for example, will consider marginal places that often play such a key role in defining the center of the American experience. Many workers in the Bakken oil patch found themselves at the margins of established communities in Western North Dakota and living in cars, parks, and shelter belts. The establishment of man camps and RV parks for temporary workers which were set apart of the towns and settlements of the region reflected their status as outsiders. Local communities sought to control the number and distribution of workforce housing sites and whenever possible encourage workers to settle into permanent homes in the region. At the same time, the workers, often displaced from their homes by the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008, often tried to create a sense of community and to modify their temporary living situation in ways that evoked suburban life.

To be clear, comparing mostly American workers who arrived in the Bakken and lived in temporary “man camps” to the global situation facing undocumented migrants, refugees, and the homeless runs the risk of confusing the similarities of form with similarities in situation. At the same time, the experiences of borders, migrants, and the homeless define the limits of a normative national, middle class, existence that has come to characterize the “American Dream.” The desire to control the individuals and experiences that threaten to destabilize the idea of the nation by transgressing its borders has led to nations attempting to management movement across borders through increasing rigorous border controls and holding undocumented migrants who elude those controls in camps and prisons that isolate migrants in “states of exception” where they are left unprotected by the law and outside any legal standing (Agamben 1995; De León 2015, 27-28; Hamilakis 2016). Similar strategies have emerged to address the visible presence of homelessness in urban areas with cities creating policies and installations designed to limit access of the homeless to public space. The visibility of homeless individuals complicate notions of prosperity, opportunity, and progress. Policing for vagrancy and loitering demonstrates how having a permanent place to live confers certain rights and protections (e.g. Desmond 2016). The following chapter considers the archaeology of migrants and the homeless broadly in an effort to understand how archaeology of the contemporary world can shed critical light on a global landscape increasingly characterized by precarity, expulsions, displacements, and contingency.

Conclusion

The archaeology of marginal groups and individuals reflects the challenges at the borders of the modern nation-state and the edges of the capitalist world. By documenting and making visible the workings of borders and walls and the hidden the strategies adopted by the homelessness archaeologists offer critical perspectives that can form the basis for political and social reforms. From Jason De León’s efforts to challenge the inhumane policies that define the US-Mexican border to Rachael Kiddey’s efforts to develop an archaeology of homelessness with therapeutic goals that fosters a more expansive view of heritage, this work also recognizes that the materiality of precarious and contingent individuals, groups, and situations requires particular attention. The ephemerality of groups in constant motion likewise informs the archaeology of camps and university campuses which we will turn to in the next chapter.

More Afterword: The Archaeology of the Capitol Insurrection

Yesterday, I wrote a bit more of the afterword of my book and described how the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests shaped certain aspects of my book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture. Of course, the events of the summer of 2020 also put into relief areas of my book where I would have invested more critical attention were it written a year or two later. The following paragraphs are a bit on the raw side and reflect my efforts to articulate in a formal way my ideas. I obviously need to contextualize the events at the Capitol more clearly than I have done here, but this feels pretty easy to do. What I was hoping to present here is evidence for a core of a decent idea that will serve as fitting reflection on the chaotic and distressing time in which I wrote this book.

The final part of my afterword will reflect on the events of January 6, 2021 and how my immersion in the book writing and revision process drew my attention to the materiality of the insurrection and investment of the Capitol building. Just as the protestors in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death sought to transform and recode urban public spaces, the rioters who stormed the Capitol likewise attempted to manipulate objects in an effort to stake claim to public space and affairs. To be clear, this is not to suggest that protestors of the summer of 2020 and the insurgents who sought to seize the Capitol in January 2021 are morally equivalent. Nor do their tactics or the context of their protests represent similar attitudes toward public space. Instead, an archaeological reading of Capitol insurrection suggests that the aggrieved supporters of President Trump and various conspiracy theories created situations where objects out of place communicated their desire to disrupt the conduct of public affairs. In contrast, the protestors who worked to remove or recoded monuments in urban areas did so in an effort to create new public spaces that reflected the social and racial character of their community. The rioters who invested the Capitol appeared in most cases to have no systematic aims in their use of objects during the event other than to disrupt public order through creating objects out of place. 

The most iconic image associated with the Capitol riot involved Adam Johnson walking through the Capitol carrying Speaker of the House of Representative’s lectern. He wears a hat emblazoned with the President Trump’s name and faces the camera and waves. His destination with the lectern remains unclear from the photograph, and it appears that his removal of the lectern is primarily a symbolic gesture that parallels the protestors’ claims to take the country back from what they viewed as illegitimate forces. Johnson is literally taking a symbol of the country with him in an effort to take back the country. His destination, ultimately, remains unclear. 

A similarly disturbing photograph that saw wide circulation showed three secret service agents with their guns drawn in the House of Representatives chamber. They braced their guns on a large piece of furniture which they had moved to barricade the door. Like the photo of Johnson carrying the lectern, this photo represents the disruption of public affairs through the displacement of an object. The bench becomes a barrier against violence and a visible threat of force in the civic space of the House chamber whose very function is to negotiate differences in a peaceful way. The horrifying stories of the use of a fire extinguisher to kill Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick similarly represent the radical displacement of an object designed to provide security in a time of crisis. Thus symbols and spaces of peaceful public and civic activities become reappropriated for violent ends.  

The rioter’s desire to “take back their country” likewise contextualizes their decision to displace the American flag with campaign banners emblazoned with President Trump’s name or battle flags of the Confederacy. By their own logic, these displacements did not represent an effort to permanently transform public space by replacing the flag of the United States with that of the president or a defeated Confederate army, but an effort to disrupt public affairs by removing the symbols of political sovereignty. Their claims to represent American political ideals and the deliberate admixture of traditional national symbols, however, made clear that these displacements, just as the secret service’s movement of the bench to block the door of the House chamber, were temporary measures designed to suspend what they saw was compromised public conduct.

The trauma of the COVID pandemic, the protests in the summer of 2020, and the Capitol insurrection of 2021 pushed me continuously to reflect on the roles that archaeology and objects play in articulating the diverse realities of a contemporary American experience. The ability of objects to disrupt, transform, and protect our sense of community served as a constant reminder that archaeological perspectives on the contemporary world provides a way to tease out more complex and sympathetic understandings experiences. While this book has likely fallen short of providing a context to come to terms with diverse and unprecedented events of the “long 2020,” my hope is that some of the objects, issues, and situations presented here offer a way forward to producing a more inclusive world.