Chairs Telling Stories

I read last week that Michael Wolf died. He was a photographer whose work mostly concerned cities. As part of his interest in urban street life he produced a series called “Bastard Chairs.” You can check it out here.

There’s something strangely personal about chairs. They reflect our daily routine and our daily movements. They are our constant companions and the make their forms and limits felt in our bodies. I have a favorite chair at home that reminds my neck and back weekly of our incompatibility. At various times in my career, I’ve collected orphan chairs from around the various buildings where I worked and moved them to my office. They aren’t terrible comfortable or attractive, but they sometimes prove useful. An office or a room without a chair seems particularly abandoned or unoccupied. A chair represents human presence and is a useful metonym for the human who occupies it: e.g. department chair. 

One of my favorite books is Jonathan Olivares, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs. (2011), and it was a helpful guide to the abandoned office furnishings in the Wesley College buildings that were destroyed last summer.

Here are some of the chairs left behind. I love how they’re rarely at the center of the photo and often out of focus. At the same time, they represent the absent presence of the individuals and groups who dwelled in these spaces.

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Rivers, Floods, and Trash

The Red River and and Red Lake River literally define Grand Forks. The founders of the settlement situated it at the confluence of these two rivers anticipating that it would become a profitable regional depot for riverboat traffic moving north and south along the Red River. The Red River valley snakes its way across the now-vanished bed of the glacial Lake Agassiz forming a shallow valley through one of the flattest landscapes on earth.  

As much as the river has defined the geography of the town of Grand Forks, it has also defined its history. A series of devastating floods in the 19th and 20th century, including the massive and highly destructive flood of 1997, have shaped the character of the community and many in Grand Forks reckon recent time by before and after the flood. Each spring, the town turns its eyes to the rising flood waters and the newly constructed flood walls. This spring, the flood hit 48 feet, but this remained well below the top of our 60 foot flood walls.

One of my favorite things is to walk along the edge of the receding flood waters. It forms a temporary beach wrack where debris pools and is stranded by the receding water.

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The retreating waters leave behind lines of debris on tiny ridges marking the maximum extent of the flood.

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Like the coast wrack in Norway described by Þóra Pétursdóttir in her 2017 article in Archaeological Dialogues, “Climate change? Archaeology and Anthropocene” (24, 175-205), the waters of the Red River leave behind of their journey along the Minnesota and North Dakota border. Some of the debris redistributed is clearly local like the blue bags filled with dog shit that people use to keep the trails tidy.

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The river excavates and shifts subtly objects dropped on the golf course that stretches along the wet side of the flood wall.

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The river also returned our love of plastic water bottles, aluminum soda and beer cans, and styrofoam and plastic cups.

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It also reminds us how much we use styrofoam forms, extruded polystyrene, and other plastic objects – like PVC pipe – that float along on the river’s current until it drops this unintended cargo at random ports.

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Over the last few years, I’ve been working along the banks of the Inachos River in the Western Argolid. Unlike the Red, the Mediterranean Inachos River is primarily a seasonal torrent that cuts deeply through the rocky landscape.

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Like the Red River, the Inachos also carries trash during its seasonal romps through the Argive countryside. In fact, the force of the Inachos is enough to serve as garbage chute for communities along its path who discard trash into its bed which is carried away each winter with the rains.



If I had a bit more energy and imagination, there is a nice little comparative paper thinking about modern trash in the two riverine landscapes and two situations. 



A colleague sent me a fascinating little article in the Norwegian Archaeological Review by Stein Farstadvoll titled “Vestigial Matters: Contemporary Archaeology and
Hyperart” (h/t to Derek Counts). The article applies the concept of Hyperart, developed by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei, to the archaeology of the contemporary world.

Akasegawa defined hyperart as “material vestiges, things that have become detached from their intended purpose and function.” Farstadvoll’s article proposes that a red polypropylene snow stake found in the vestiges of the 19th century landscape garden fit this definition. The snow stake was out of place from a functional standpoint as it was not marking a road edge or feature that needed to be visible during deep snowfall. It was also out of place temporally standing in a landscape otherwise defined by abandonment. The rupture between the snow stake and its surroundings in both the time and the place render the object meaningless or at least profoundly ambiguous. Anyone who has done archaeological work – particularly archaeological survey – has invariably happened across these kinds of Hyperart.

Two little scenes from my work in the Western Argolid may well qualify as Hyperart. One is a Greek coffee cup that hangs from a nail in a wood cabinet in another wise ruined seasonal house (kalyvi) at the settlement of Chelmis.

It’s not so much that the resident of the house wouldn’t enjoy a cup of Greek coffee from time to time so that the object is out of place. It’s that the cup remains hung by its delicate handle from the nail in the wooden cabinet even after the roof of the house has long collapsed and the house no longer serves the function that would offer an appropriate context for coffee drinking. 



The juxtaposition between the coffee cup still in its place and the otherwise ruinous condition of its surrounding has never failed to attract our attention. In fact, this past summer my colleagues and I joked about how many photos we’ve taken of this forlorn coffee cup hanging by a nail in a house that is collapsing more and more every year.

The settlement of Chelmis is connected to the nearest village not be bonds of kinship or even, necessarily, regional economy, but by a road and electrical lines. The electrical lines take a more direct route than the road which roughly follows the slightly meandering path of an east-west running ravine. The electrical lines run along a straighter line and cut through olive groves and fields and often stand some 10 or 20 meters south of the road. They provide power to one or two houses that Chelmis that continue to be used and the church of the Panayia nearby. 


The posts that support the electrical lines also have street lights. These are strange because in many cases the electrical poles are not near the street. These lights do not light up the street. The might, of course, serve another function, for example, to show whether the power lines have current, but this seems unlikely. Perhaps at some point the road ran closer to the electrical poles. Maybe the electrical poles were supposed to be installed along the road, but for whatever reason were not. We know that during the spring when the Chelmis was occupied for threshing grain and in the winter when the flocks were present, children from would have walked from the settlement to the village for school. Perhaps they would have left in the morning when it was still dark the the streetlights, though misaligned, would have shown the way through the countryside.

Today, they don’t seem to serve any purpose and we’ve never been in that area at night, so we don’t even know if any of them work. Maybe they’re vestigial. Maybe they’ve always been out of place.    

Obsolescence (feat. Teaching Tuesday)

 This weekend I read Daniel Abramson’s Obsolescence: An Architectural History (2016). I mostly read it for fun, but I have also been thinking about issues of obsolescence, functionality, and space on UND’s campus, in our community, and in the context of an archaeology of the contemporary world, particularly in the context of our accelerated and accelerating world and sense of time.

The book argues that obsolescence in architecture emerged in the early 20th-century when the U.S. government changed the tax code to allow for deductions based on the depreciation of buildings. At the same time, the rapid development of U.S. cities – particular Chicago and New York – and the availability of capital in the first three decades of the 20th century led to the demolition of buildings that were often less than 20 years old and the building of new, larger, more sophisticated structures in their place. Finally, this coincided with a progressive view of the modern world that saw social, economic, and even political development of society as linear and the new overwriting the old as key to the process of perpetual renewal and improvement. 

This promoted a functional approach to architecture that influenced building and design throughout the 20th century. While this approach has seen critiques, most famously in Brutalism which offered forms that conspicuous resisted functionalist demands and the work of, say, Peter Eisenman which simply ignored function as a useful category for his architectural forms. In the end, however, the long tail of progressive ideas and function views of architecture has persisted although often redefined in terms of “adaptive reuse” or even sustainability which like the concept of depreciation was incentivized through both policy and a monetized view of architecture and space.

I got to thinking about obsolescence lately in three different contexts.

First, as I blogged about yesterday… 

Second, I serve on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This has given me a front row seat to thinking about the future of architecture in our community. As any small city, our urban fabric is undergoing constant change. Old buildings are being repurposed and demolished, new buildings pop up, and criteria and impressions for what is important, appropriate, and useful fluctuate. Determining what is obsolete and no longer necessary or desirable and what qualifies as important to the character of the community is on our monthly agenda. Functionalism and the representative value of architecture stand side-by-side. As Abramson noted, the concept of obsolescence shaped sometimes overzealous efforts toward urban renewal in the mid-20th century and what one person sees as blight, another sees as telling a story about the history of our community. 

In my neighborhood, there is an enthusiastic effort to slow and even reduce traffic flow down a residential street that has slowly become a significant thoroughfare. While the community efforts to slow the flow of traffic are legitimate expressions of anxiety about the impact of traffic in our neighborhood, there is also a historical element to their resistance. The street, they claim, is and was a residential street and was not designed to handle the greater flow of traffic. As a result, the flow needs to be re-routed to preserve the character of the neighborhood. 

The interesting counterpoint, of course, is that the function of streets and the character of neighborhood change through time and with use, what originally served one purpose, now falls short. This isn’t to suggest that we simply redefine the function of our beloved neighborhood street, but to demonstrate how the notion of preservation and obsolescence often go hand-in-hand.

Third, I’ve been thinking about classrooms a good bit lately. Last semester, I taught on an almost brand-new collaborative learning classroom. It was quirky and did not really fit the way that I taught my class. (I blogged about it here). The newness of the room pushed me to think about whether my teaching style was, in fact, obsolete and required updating to adapt to the new architectural koine in UND classrooms.

Fortunately (maybe), my history 240 (the Historian’s Crap) is in an older classroom that features, among other things, a real chalk board and a cart with a (chalk) dusty-laptop  computer and a digital projector. The room is clearly designed around the expectation that I will lecture to the students and the primary form of visual communication will be words on a chalk board. The active and collaborative learning room, in contrast, did not even have a central screen or a digital project, but instead has televisions arranged at each table, hung from the outer walls of the room. To show students anything visual involved drawing their attention away from the front of the room and redirecting it outward. The rooms we use shape not only how we teach, but how we learn and this, in turn, shapes our attitudes toward authority, toward the past, and to the experience at the university.

The idea that a room or a style is obsolete is a value judgement that is grounded in a linear view of time in which new presents are constantly overwriting and obviating outmoded pasts. Anyone who has taught for even a few years knows that even the most comprehensively research pedagogical technique, method, or procedure, is only as a good as the educator who handles and implements it. More than that, most of us are trained to view with intense skepticism any view of the present or future that is incompatible with the past. If Ambramson’s critique of obsolescence in architecture can teach us anything, it’s that contemporary calls for sustainability and reuse only make sense within a model of thinking about space (a discourse, if you will) that includes and, in fact, privileges obsolescence. 

It’s a good reminder not to get too hung up on progress and not to fret change.     


Defining the Contemporary in Time and Place

The final sections that I need to write for (first draft of) the introduction to my book on archaeology of the contemporary American experience serve to define the scope of the book. I’ve located the archaeology of contemporary America in its historiographical and, to some extent, theoretical contexts, but my book still requires some formal limits. In a practical sense, my book is going to be short (<80,000 words) and synthetic and invariably will not be all things to all people. 

As with most books on archaeology, its scope is both chronological and spatial.

For time and place:

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 any definition of the archaeology of the contemporary must be both provisional and flexible enough to reflect the range of contributions present under this broad banner. The chronological definition of the contemporary world will have less to do with some narrow period centered on the present, and more to do with the predominant 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 aa growing anxiety surrounding the human wrought changes in the environment. Moreover, many archaeologists working in the second decade of the 21st century experienced these changes first hand. It also 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. This chronological definition, of course, does not limit our interest only to objects manufactured over the last 50 years or identified closely with this span of time. This book will also follow the lead of Shannon Lee Dawdy, Laurent Olivier, and Alfredo González-Ruibal in recognizing 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 which in large part reflects the priorities present in the field of historical archaeology. 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,” 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 the mass movement of populations displaced by political and economic forces has further eroded a sense of provenience and distinctly national experience. This book will still focus on the United States and North America, but it will also be attuned to the various courses of influence, capital and movement that transform the contemporary world.

Ruins and Curated Decay

This weekend I read Cailin Desilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (2017). It is a pretty great little book that filled my mind with ideas that cut across a number of things that I’ve been working on (or being tempted by) lately. Her book considers an alternative view of preservation that encourages allowing the formation of ruins rather than the continuous intervention necessary to arrest the decay in historical buildings. She draws on examples from the storm-battered coast of the U.K. and rural Montana that illustrate how allowing certain sites to decay and fall into ruination creates a different attitude toward our material world, nature, and time.

In particular, the process of decay undermines the view that historical buildings should persist forever outside of time. Instead, she proposes a post-human view of these buildings that locate them as part of the natural world, recognizes the dynamic character of the building’s materiality, embraces the potential of  fragmentation, and, nevertheless, still places ruins in historical and mnemonic landscapes. Above all, Desilvey emphasizes that conventional practices of preservation are not the only way to produce meaningful heritage.

The book spoke to three of my projects in slightly different ways.

1. Chelmis. Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on a paper that document the modern (20th century) settlement of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. The site consists of over a dozen Balkan-style long houses in various states of preservation and collapse. What drew us to this site was both a commitment to documenting the 20th century landscape of the Western Argolid, but also our interest in sites of ruin and decay that are not neatly preserved with color coordinated concrete, carefully manicured pathways, and thoughtful conservation plans. The decaying ruins of Chelmis (and sites like it), stand as a kind of counter monument in Greece as they have little legal protection as modern ruins that are both ubiquitous in the countryside and not particularly significant to some national historical narrative (e.g. Classical antiquity, Byzantine and Christian heritages, et c.). In fact, their modest form, association with rural life and transhumant pastoralism, and isolated location provides a scenario where nature and material culture collaborate slowly to obfuscate their history from the national landscape. Our efforts to document these buildings and integrate them into a larger discourse on the Greek countryside is not simply a race against nature and ruination, but part of a larger view of the landscape that is defined by the interplay between natural and cultural processes both diachronically and spatially. These buildings literally embody the work of landscape archaeology.

2. Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This year, I started a term on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. The Commission’s job, as far as I can gather, is both to document (or assigns to be documented) historic districts, neighborhoods, and buildings in Grand Forks and also to monitor existing historic sites and work with developers, the community, and city leaders to preserve the integrity of city’s historic landscape. This is a good thing, in general, but the work of this commission is complicated. Grand Forks, like most places in the U.S., continues to see growth and development, some of which runs counter to the commission’s charge of preserving the historical fabric of the community.

Desilvey’s book got me thinking about the various historical landscapes present in Grand Forks. These range from typical historic districts like downtown or the Near Southside Historic District to spaces with more complicated legacies, like the ruins of the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the ghostly traces of abandoned neighborhoods preserved on the wet side of the greenway’s flood wall. In fact, the tension between preservation and occlusion manifests in the city’s fabric and almost total absence of ruins represents the community’s struggle against the terrible destruction power of the almost-annual Red River floods.

3. Wesley College Documentation Project. My study of the four remaining buildings of Wesley College at the University of North Dakota didn’t really understand them as being ruins. I recognized, of course, their complex histories as dormitories, administrative offices, classrooms, and lab spaces. I also realized that what we were doing by documenting abandonment was actually documenting the process of these buildings becoming ruins even though this process was ultimately accelerated by the bulldozer. By taking the abandoned buildings serious, documenting their fabric and the objects left behind, ritualizing their final weeks, and commemorating their history in text, music, and images, we managed to engage with the final months of these buildings before their physical form was removed from campus.

What intrigued me the most was the conversation surrounding these buildings in their final months. There were, of course, those who looked for ways to conserve, preserve, or repurpose these buildings in order to remember the history of Wesley College, its leaders, and these “modern” buildings. By maintaining their presence on campus, they would have also served as a reminder that not all that is progressive, innovative, or modern is necessarily destined to persist, to grow, and to improve. The university administration, of course, had valid reasons to remove these buildings. The cost of ruins on a university campus remains steep and they were no longer contributing practical space to campus functions. They also likely saw these buildings as telling the kind of cautionary tale that they aspired to avoid (or at least obscure): progressive fantasies of campus renewal, innovation, and restoration may fail. Ruins, of course, are not particularly welcome by campus leaders because they remind them of their own futility in the face of social and economic change, nature, and taste. 

The potential of ruins to remind a community of time, materiality, decay, and our deep entanglement with nature make them particular valuable monuments. It is all too easy to consign ruins to the countryside where the traditional line between natural and civilization is ragged and blurred. The deeply progressive hopes of communities and campuses need ruins too to temper their own deeply modern impulse toward continuous improvement and remind us that the present rarely planned and always negotiated.   

Archaeology and the Contemporary

One of the most interesting trends these days in archaeology (and maybe history too) is what I’ll call the “temporal turn.” My suspicion is that it arose from the broader critique of modernity and modern time which arose in the humanities in the 1990s and early 2000s (for example Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (2004)) which originated, in part, in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983). Among archaeologists, Gavin Lucas’s Archaeology of Time (2004) and Julian Thomas’s Archaeology and Modernity (2004) marked a bit of a watershed in framing the explicit significance of time to our discipline. In the last decade, this interest in time has accelerated both in the humanities and in archaeology and the archaeology of the “contemporary past” embodies in some way this growing interest in how time shapes what we understand and do as archaeologists.

Right now, the final part of my introduction introduces the idea of time and the contemporary and attempts to unpack the complexities of these debates in part to frame what an archaeology of the contemporary world really means. Contemporaneity, for example, has a different meaning to synchrony, and Gavin Lucas has pointed out that contemporaneity primarily indicates “a relation between objects” and that this relationship does not necessarily imply that the two objects were made at the same time or are the same age. For Lucas and most archaeologists of the contemporary world, the appearance of the past in the present is a feature of contemporaneity that resists stratigraphic sequencing or the linear ordering of time. The tension between archaeologist’s interest in seriation and synchrony and the experience of contemporaneity served as a useful challenge to linear views of time, progress, and modernity.

This definition of contemporaneity has inspired archaeologists of the contemporary to think more broadly about how we frame our work temporally. For example, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s work on post-Katrina New Orleans demonstrated how patina produced the past in the contemporary world and challenged modern views of obsolescence and progress. Laurent Olivier has similarly argued that archaeological time has parallels with the irrationality of objects and time within memory and the unconscious. Objects appear and disappear from our memory driven by stimuli that we don’t always control or understand in the same way that past appears in the present. Cornelius Holtorf has suggested that pastness is a key element in establishing the authenticity of the archaeological object, but that this is not simply a chronological function. Significantly he argues that how we narrate the past and its relationship to the present plays a key role in producing meaningful pasts.

Archaeologists often establish the relationship between past and present through a series of methodological moves that define our object of study. Excavation, for example, establishes the pastness of objects by revealing them beneath the very ground of the present. The careful scrutiny of objects and attention to signs of use, wear, and patina produces narratives that locate the object in relation to other agents to separate it from the present and to create a sense of pastness. The ironic work of archaeology seeks out the occluded to reveal the hidden reality of objects and our experiences.   

If we begin, however, with an assumption that an object is also contemporary and not essential of the past, then we complicate the traditional narrative and methodological strategies of archaeology that seek to locate objects within the linear time of the modern world. This, in turn, challenges notions of progress, obsolescence, and relentless pressures to innovate inherent to capitalism. Instead, an archaeology of the contemporary world embraces the ruin, patina, the persistent, and the marginal. As Buchli and Lucas noted at the turn of the 21st century, archaeology of the contemporary world can “constitute the unconstituted.” In other words, it’s not simply the work of alienating the familiar through methods, but also the work of articulating the uncanny, the abject, and the traumatic, and even the ephemeral and banal. 

To do this, however, it has to experiment with methods. Rodney Harrison famously suggested that we embrace the surface assemblage as the method and model for an archaeology of the contemporary. The lack of stratigraphic distinction between the deposits insists that we consider the objects as all existing in the present and the assemblage itself the product of sampling strategies established by the archaeologist. Other archaeologists have explored the potential for different narrative structures that abandon the linearity of the modern novel, for example, or the ironic posture of 19th century history in exchange for different ways to understand the relationship between us and objects. Parataxis, for example, juxtaposes different images, narratives, and descriptions and creates the potential for different understanding of time, agency, and objects. (I’m thinking a good bit about this approach to presenting my work with the Wesley College project!).

Contemporaneity also involves an attentiveness to more specific social goals. The modern concept of progress has often served to separate “us” from “them.” When Schiffer and Gould proposed an “archaeology of us” in the 1980s, they recognized the tension between texts and objects, for example, and how archaeology could provide another data point in attempting to create realistic model of human behavior. At the same time, embracing contemporaneity encourages archaeologists to resist the temptation to create others on methodological or chronological grounds and to remain open to voices, pasts, experiences, and objects that we might overlook or otherwise dismiss. 

Four Articles and a Book

I’ve been writing and reading intermittently over the last month trying to get a basic draft of my introduction done on an unrealistic schedule and with delusional expectations on its quality. Who writes the introduction first anyway? Fools, that’s who.

One nice thing is that I’ve had a chance to read some new stuff and go back and read some old stuff. Here are five things that I’ve read lately:

An Archaeology of the Contemporary Era by Alfredo González-Ruibal. This new book is brilliant and provocative and considers both contemporaneity as a framework to understand the very recent past and the longer arc of modernity. The topical chapters are rich with case studies and demonstrate the genuinely global scope of the archaeology of the recent past. They also support a political agenda that will be familiar to anyone who knows González-Ruibal’s other writings. Apparently the book was originally sub-titled “the age of destruction” and the archaeological critique of neoliberalism and capitalism is prominent and compelling throughout.

Colleen Morgan and Daniel Eddisford’s brand new “Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis,” in the newest Journal of Contemporary Archaeology is among those articles that I wish I had written (or at very least READ) two or three years ago. They argue that single context archaeology, far from being the neoliberal culmination of uberified (uberized?) archaeology where every archaeologist is their own boss as long as they keep on time, on task, and within the standards set by management (and the all-seeing, all-knowing discipline) and more an expression of anarchist praxis bringing together aspects of craft, Bakunin’s articulation of authority within anarchism, and years of practical experience. It’s good and thought provoking and important.

Paul Mullin’s “Imagining Conformity: Consumption and Homogeneity in the Postwar African American Suburbs,” which appeared last year in Historical Archaeology (2017). is a remarkably vivid discussion African American suburbanization in Indianapolis in the postwar period. It is based on the careful study of existing evidence – largely from published sources and oral history – for African American suburbs and consumer culture. Because of various policies at the local and national level, suburbs in the 1940s experienced strict racially segregation. In the end, he argues that African Americans did not see their move to the suburbs as an expression of black resistance or as a way to challenge white privilege. In fact, they behaved in much the same way as their white counterparts in white suburbs. The expectation that they should aspire to suburban homeownership and conform to certain standards of display and behavior that constituted a kind of “quiet homogeneity rather than expressive individuality.” In other words, African American suburbs demonstrated the same elements of conformity that characterized white suburbs.

For various reasons, I re-read Shannon Lee Dawdy’s “Clockpunk Anthropology and
the Ruins of Modernity” which was published in Current Anthropology in 2010. This is an article that I read as soon as it appeared. It appealed to my interest in punk archaeology and juxtaposition of different times within the clock punk or steampunk genre of science fiction writing. Reading it again after a few years was an uncanny business and resulted in me underlining everything. The most interesting observations, however, are similar to those in both González-Ruibal’s book and Dawdy’s book Patina. An archaeology of the modern world involves recognizing the past in the present and the deeply anti-modern currents present in our contemporary world. The presence and celebration of urban ruins, for example, and the pressure to erase them or designated them as blighted, demonstrates the ongoing tension between aspirations toward progress and social projects that exist outside of capitalism and modernity. 

Finally, just this week, I discovered Dan Hicks’ monumental chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies (2010), “The Material-Cultural Turn: Event and Effect.” It’s sweeping, it is exhaustive (if a bit dated now), and it’s really smart. More than that, it includes over 100 pages of bibliography and appears to cite every major work in material culture studies, historical archaeology, and archaeology of the contemporary world. I haven’t had the document closed on my laptop since I grabbed it from a couple of weeks ago. If you want to know where the material turn came from, this is the place to go.  

A Book Proposal: Archaeology and History at North Dakota’s Wesley College

This weekend, I finished reading Alfredo González-Ruibal’s new book, An Archaeology of the Contemporary Era (2019). It is an an exhaustive survey of recent trends in the archaeology of the contemporary that does not shy away from advancing its own interpretative and political agenda. This makes sense since the archaeology of the contemporary emerged from a kind of political engagement with the material present.

González-Ruibal’s book also motivated me to think about both my book on the archaeology of the American experience and one particular lingering project: the Wesley College Documentation Project. This was a eight-week long project that used photography and video, thick description, archival work, performances, and collaborative imagining to understand the history, abandonment, and final months of four buildings associated with Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. 

This project haunts me, and not just me, my colleague Mike Wittgraf is working on a mixed-media piece that derived from recordings that we did in Corwin Hall, my student-collaborators have approached me about continuing work on the project, and I feel like some of the ideas that I developed during that project cut across a bunch of my current projects – from thoughts on austerity to understanding the life of buildings and technology, to the concept of the contemporary. 

Last semester, I started to write up some of the work we did at this project and before too long, I had about 17,000 words in a document. The words included descriptions of individual rooms:

Larimore Hall, Room 136
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Description and History: This room was originally the northern part of Room 13 which was probably the waiting room of Larimore Hall where guests could wait for their friends living in this dormitory under the watchful eye of the matron. The east and west walls are original. Access to the room comes through a door with a transom window and a granite threshold in the west wall. The south wall of the room has an observation window and it dry wall. This wall does not appear on the early-1970s one-line plan or the 1979 plan.

In its final phase room 136 extended into Room 15 (on the 1979 plans and the one-lines from the early 1970s). Room 15 was a bathroom and with the removal of the drop ceiling, the changes to structure are visible with the ceiling above the bathroom striped of plaster and pipes from the upstairs bathroom visible.The north wall is largely original except for a 7 ft x 1 ft bump out added to accommodate the plumbing from the adjacent bathroom.


Of course, we didn’t prepare similarly detailed description of each space within the Wesley College buildings, but we documented enough of the buildings to provide high resolution windows that expose the dynamism of these buildings over time. I prepared annotated illustrations of each of the floors.

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We also prepared inventories of the stuff that was left behind in these buildings, which still need to be transcribed, and prepared studies of certain classes of artifacts like desks.

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It also includes synthetic histories of each of the architecture and use of each building and of Wesley College as an institution. 

For example: 

Sayre Hall was the earliest of the four buildings. It was funded by a gift of $25,000 by A.J. Sayre, who was born in Harvey, ND and made his fortune in Canada and on the West Coast in land, timber and other business dealings. The building was opened in 1908 as a men’s dormitory and could accommodate 65 students. In 1919, the building was renamed Harold Holden Sayre Hall after A.J. Sayre’s late son who had died in World War One. The rooms, like in its twin Larimore Hall, were two room suites that included a bed room complete with shaving sink and closet, and a living room area, which opened onto the hall. For many years, these dormitories were considered the best on campus (and even today would compare favorably with most of UND’s on campus housing). Over the course of the early 20th century served as the home for numerous well-known UND alumni including Maxwell Anderson, Aviator Carl Ben Eielson, Garth Howland who would go on to found the Art Department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Ralph Henry Hancock, the son of John Milton Hancock.


The larger narrative of North Dakota’s Wesley College in the history of higher education in the state and even nationally remains to be written, but having taught a course on the UND budget and the history of higher education, I think this would be fairly easy to prepare. 

As part of this work, I also combed the documents preserved in UND’s Department of Special Collections, and I pulled together the letter written by then President-Emeritus Edward Robertson in 1935 to raise money for Wesley College during the Great Depression. You can download a private “alpha” version of this book here.

This range of material offers a view of perspectives on the Wesley College buildings, higher education, leadership, and abandonment. My plan is not to weave these perspectives together into a coherent or synthetic narrative, however, but to model my book on the buildings themselves. By arranging the materials paratactically, the book will attempt to represent the complex times and histories of the Wesley College buildings and leave the potential narratives to understand this open and dynamic. The buildings themselves are gone, but their time remains through our documentation, through various campus and historical narratives, and through our media interventions.

I started to play with this kind of non-narrative, non-argument, presentation in my little guide to the Bakken oil patch where the structure of the tourist guide allowed for the paratactic juxtapositions of the modern and the historical, the spatial and the conceptual, and site and the landscape. 


Here’s the challenge. I could finish a draft manuscript of this book in a month or six weeks at most. The problem is that I have no idea where I should send it. It will be around 25,000 words, probably, with lots of images, documents, and, if possible, links. 

I’d prefer the press to be peer reviewed and open access, but it needn’t necessarily be the latter. 

More than that, I want a publisher that will get this kind of project and support a more, rather than less experimental approach to what I’m trying to do.

Any thoughts?

Writing an Introduction

So far my effort to write an introduction to my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience has been more challenging that I initially expected. Since the book isn’t going to be long (~70,000 words), the introduction isn’t going to be long. Moreover, since the book is going to be a survey of sorts, I would not necessarily have to spend too much time unpacking the historiography of the archaeology of the contemporary world as this will be done over the course of a series of more focused chapters. Because my introduction will be short and it needn’t be an exhaustive literature review, I decided to do something more focused (and concise), but as I started to write I found myself unsatisfied. 

Initially my intention was to write a short (around 5000 words) essay on the role of time in the archaeology of the contemporary. This, however, seemed like a dense and abstract way to start this book and something that might be unappealing to readers interested mostly in the survey of recent work and less interested in the conceptual underpinning of the contemporaneity in archaeology. 

As I began to revise my introduction, I though it might be better to anchor it in four short (~1200) discussions. First, I have written a series of brief vignettes that introduce the reader to four examples of the history of the contemporary American experience. I’ve posted it here. Second, I’ve mostly drafted a brief history of the earliest efforts to apply archaeology to the study of the contemporary American experience. Third will be a section that would situate the archaeology of the American experience in the larger context of the archaeology of the contemporary world and emphasize the interest in globalization in American historical archaeology as the foundation for locating the archaeology of contemporary America in a global context. Fourth, I still nee to include something on time and the contemporary in archaeology both to  frame the chronological scope of the archaeology of the contemporary and unpack the potential for contemporaneity to produce more inclusive narratives.

Finally, I need to outline the book and that will likely take another 1000-1500 words bringing my introduction in at a little under 7000 words.

Wish me luck.