Resurvey

This week on the Western Argolid Regional Project, I’ve been running a few queries that compare the data from our original survey field walking and subsequent efforts to expand the assemblages present in these survey units. We termed these later efforts “resurvey” on WARP and thought they might be useful both to expand our generally small assemblages into something a bit more susceptible to functional analysis and to calibrate our recovery rates (as David Pettegrew and I did on the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project). 

The challenge with this kind of analysis is how do we compare two different assemblages. In general, these two assemblages did not produce the same specific types of artifacts on the basis of our narrow typologies (i.e. the odds seem small that we’d find, for instance, two examples of the same African Red Slip form or even two examples of a Classical cooking pot), so that is not a very useful way to compare things. 

To open up the potential for meaningful overlap, I did a quick comparison of our resurvey units and our initial survey units to see if they produced the same period. This involves comparing the exact periods present in the finds from our first walking of the units to those found in either re-walking the units or in total collection circles with 2 m radius. Generally speaking there was some overlap between periods from each collection type. A few units producing over 50% of the material from the same periods, but most resurvey units produced material that had much lower overlaps (10%-20%). In this context, overlapping periods represent specific chronological period overlaps, such as Classical or Early Roman. This does not account for overlaps that are more broadly defined, such as when one assemblage produced Classical pottery and the other produced Classical-Hellenistic.  This is the next step in analysis is to see if resurvey produced chronological (as opposed to simply period) overlaps. This is a more complicated query and not ideal for analysis in the field.

We also compared the artifact densities per hectare from the resurvey units and the original survey units. As we demonstrated on PKAP, looking more carefully at the ground produced significantly higher densities. The highest density resurvey unit – which consisted total collection circles with 4 m diameters – produced densities that were over 100,000 per ha, for a unit that produced a density of only 1,700 artifact per ha through standard field walking practice. (Despite this massive difference in density, the unit produce a period overlap of over 50%!). Other units showed a similarly massive increase in densities with the resurvey units often producing nearly the same amount of pottery as the original survey units which covered much larger areas.

The differences between the two densities likely reflect three trends. First – and most obviously – a team of two or three scouring a 4 m diameter total collection circle for 10 minutes is like to find more pottery than a field walker, standing upright, and scanning 1 meter to either side even at a leisurely pace. Total collection circles were also much more likely to be placed in high density areas. After all, part of the goal of resurvey was to produce more a robust assemblage of material for chronological and functional analysis. Finally, total collection resurvey circles tended to be in areas of the unit with higher surface visibility. For each survey unit we recorded the average visibility for the entire unit. We did the same for the total collection resurvey units and they generally were 20%-40% higher visibility than the original survey units.

In the end, my analysis of these units is just starting. Considering the functional character of the original and resurvey assemblages, the chronological overlap of the two sets of material, and whether they produced new information about the   

Thyrsos Basilica at Tegea

The folks on Western Argolid Regional Project are heading to the Tripoli museum and then to Tegea tomorrow while I stay back to take care of some editing and databasing. 

In anticipation of their trip, I looked up the section in my dissertation where I talk about the Early Christian basilica there that was excavated by Anastasios Orlandos and published in the 1970s. The calendar mosaic from the building is remarkable as is its metrical inscription.

Another scrappier inscription seems to evoke the sanctus and might be one of the few inscription from Early Christian Greece that preserves a clear liturgical utterance that has significance in the Christological controversies of Late Antiquity. Here’s a link to something I wrote a while back.

Here’s what I said 15 years ago in my dissertation.

The Thyrsos basilica at Tegea is quite remarkable. [82] The main nave is decorated with a grid of 16 panels containing personifications of the 12 months and at its eastern and western end the four rivers of paradise (figs. 75-82). Seven of the panels are well preserved and demonstrate careful workmanship. Each month is dressed appropriately for the season and is depicted performing some seasonally characteristic activity, except November whose activities are unclear (fig. 80). In the apse, a panel which is now destroyed showed two youths, identified as the “Kaloi Karoi”, carrying baskets of fruit and rushing toward a central figure of a man. At the western end, two putti hold a metrical inscription praising the Bishop Thyrsos, discussed in more detail in the next chapter (fig. 83). The presence of a tomb in the northern bay of the narthex hints at a possible funerary function for this church.

Mosaics depicting the months were very popular in Greece during Late Antiquity. Additional examples exist from The Villa of the Falconer at Argos, a Christian building at Thebes (figs. 32-35), and Loutro Hypatis. Perhaps the most famous of these is in conjunction with a falcon hunt mosaic from the Villa of the Falconer in Argos (figs. 21- 26). The presence of mosaics depicting the months in such a variety of locations emphasized that this motif had a meaning appropriate to a wide variety of contexts.

While Äkerström-Hougen’s thorough study of the mosaics from the Villa of the Falconer outside of Argos, stressed the relationship between the calendar mosaic there and illustrated Late Roman calendars, she also found this mosaic generally consistent with the calendars at Tegea, the preserved panels from Thebes, and the mosaic at Delphi even though the architectural context for these panels varied considerably. For example, at least one traditional festival is expressed in the calendars of the Tegea and Argos despite the fact that they derive from a “Christian” and “secular” setting respectively. In Argos, for the month of May, the mosaics depict a man with a basket of roses, a wreath of flowers, and a floral crown (fig. 23). At Tegea, the personification of May is shown with a basket of flowers and a floral crown (fig. 76). This mosaic at Argos makes a clear allusion to the rosaria or rosalia, initially a festival to honor the dead, but by the fourth century a feast to celebrate the arrival of summer. [83] A similar depiction of this feast is found on the Calendar of 354, which was prepared for an aristocratic Christian patron.84 Salzman, in her study of this important Late Roman calendar, emphasized the significance of this festival in both religious and economic terms. In religious terms she associated the importance of the Rose Festival, which was celebrated with games, to the rise in interest in astrological and seasonal celebrations during the fourth century. [85] While there is insufficient evidence to argue that the depiction of a May on the Tegea floor was a direct allusion to a pagan festival as it appears to be at Argos or in the Calendar of 354, the continued use of the iconography at Tegea reflects a preference for traditional symbolism over personifications of an explicitly non-pagan nature. The clear allusion to the Rose Festival in the mosaic in nearby Argos which appears roughly contemporary, places the Tegea mosaic in a discourse which operated to a considerable degree outside the specific religious context of the building. It seems, then, reasonable to consider that the floor at Tegea, like the floor at Argos, served to show the prosperity found within the cycle of rural life and linked this ideal to the patron, individual, or institution most closely associated with the floor. [86] This adds an additional level of meaning to H. Maguire’s already rich reading of this floor as a depiction of earth and ocean. [87] Now the earth and its prosperity is not only the domain of man, but also a world constituted in aristocratic terms and linked to the authority of the clergy through their privileged access to the central nave and the liturgical procession. 

82. The mosaic found at the so-called basilica of Thyrsos at Tegea has evoked considerable debate over the 100 years since its discovery. The building itself was originally reported as a single naved, oriented, apsidal structure. Spiro, suggested that the building was perhaps a secular audience hall on account of the inscription at the west entrance to the building which she considered to be of “the kind of inscription one would expect to find in the more secularised atmosphere of an audience hall in which “the most holy Thyrsos” held court.”(Spiro, Critical Corpus, 181.) She further argued against this building having a liturgical function because of the lack of any evidence for such basic liturgical furnishings as the foundation of an ambo or chancel screens. The east end of the church, including the mosaics in the apse there, is very poorly preserved leaving open the very real possibility that these features did actually exist. Orlandos in his general discussion of the Christian monuments in Tegea, considered this building as a three-aisled basilica on account of the presence of a narthex to the east of the paved nave and the discovery of several cross-inscribed ionic impost capitals, which as I have shown are rare outside a liturgical context (Orlandos, ABME 12 (1973), 66-69.). Furthermore he mentioned in his general survey of Early Christian architecture in Greece that he was aware of an unpublished sigma table excavated from the Thyrsos basilica suggesting some liturgical activity in that place, although not necessarily confirming the building as having a primarily liturgical function since such tables have been found in a wide array of contexts, including villas such as in Athens (Orlandos, Hē xylostegos palaiochristianikē basilikē (1956), 485). A tomb arranged parallel to the north wall of the western antechamber further suggested the presence of a narthex. This, along with evidence for the use of several ionic impost capitals points to this being a three-aisled basilica (Orlandos, AMBE 12 (1973), 12-19, 22-81). Avramea, quite recently, has argued unconvincingly that this building was a martyrium to the bishop Thyrsos and that the tomb found to the north of the narthex chamber belonged to the esteemed bishop (A. Avramea, DXAE (1999), 35-40; cf. D. Feissel, BE (2000), 797.). To the north of the central nave there exists another series of inscribed mosaic panels whose relationship to the main nave is unclear. Orlandos has suggested that this room was a parecclesia, but examples of this feature are rare in Greece. The mosaic inscription which separates the two badly damaged panels runs, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God with the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and this could allude to a liturgical utterance, and thus suggests a liturgical function for the room. The published reports and studies are quite inadequate making it unlikely ever to determine the form and function of this building. The presence of a tomb mitigates against it being a reception hall, and the reference to a bishop in the inscription makes the most likely identification of this building as a church or a very large private chapel.

83 G. Äkerström-Hougen, The Calendar and Hunting Mosaics, 80.

84 M.R. Salzman, On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Antiquity. (Berkeley 1990), 96-99.

85 Salzman, On Roman Time, 129, 183.

86 Parrish, Season Mosaics of Roman North Africa. (Rome 1984), 13. “In an imperial context, this term [felicitas temporum] had a propagandistic meaning, referring to the Emperor’s beneficent rule and the promised return of the golden age. But in a private house, the seasons had more generalized associations with prosperity and good fortune, and lacked any direct political overtones.”

87 Maguire, Earth and Ocean, 21-28.

Distributional Analysis

One of the challenges of siteless survey is shifting our intention from a focus on sites to the distribution of artifacts across a landscape. Over the last four years at the Western Argolid Regional Project we have collected artifact level data from over 7000 survey units that cover a significant percentage of our 30 sq km survey area. 

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The material includes several clear clusters of high density units some of which are associated with known sites as well as a wide scatter of material clustered in different ways across the modern countryside. The temptation is to focus on the larger and higher density clusters which have produced more robust assemblages of material and are more susceptible to analysis on the basis of function, chronology, and settlement structure. In fact, there is no escaping from the fact that the more material an area produces, the more we are able to say about the areas history, use, and regional context. What is harder to understand is how areas or even single survey units that produce small assemblages can contribute to the greater understanding of the landscape and region. 

I’ve spent the last two weeks attempting to figure out how to describe the contours of the artifactual landscape of our survey area as a whole and to pull apart the high and low density clusters that constitute the artifact distribution. Some of the things that I had to consider are how to define a cluster: is it related to the number of objects? do the units that produced artifacts have to be contiguous or can they be interrupted? how do we control for surface visibility, background disturbance, and other variables that impact recovery rates on individual units? 

Even when I was able to use various kinds of buffering and neighborhood analysis to create archaeologically plausible clusters of units with material from various periods, we then had to determine the arrangement of these clusters across the landscapes. The distance of one group of cluster from another (and the impact of the vagaries of our survey area on this kind of distribution) would appear to offer at least one indication of connectivity in our survey area and perhaps an indicator of density or intensity of human activity in the landscape. At the same time, factors such as period length and recovery rates associated with particular classes (or types) or artifacts likewise shape the visibility of periods and functions in the landscape.

Developing a template or a lens through which we define and construct assemblages for analysis is among the most challenging aspect of siteless survey and one that will likely occupy my time and energy for a quite some time to come!

Views of Digital Archaeology

I’ve been thinking a good bit about digital archaeology lately. This is partly because I’ve been working on a paper for this fall’s European Archaeological Association meeting and in part because I’ve been doing digital stuff over the last week or so.

My colleague Dimitri Nakassis wrote a little post about archaeology being hard over on the Western Argolid Regional Project page last week. This is a bit of a response in a series of photographs. I’m not so much arguing that digital archaeology is or isn’t hard, but that it is not very scenic or beautiful. I’ve spent some quality screen time over the past few days.

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Archaeological Returns

I think most archaeologists now think of their fieldwork projects as having a shelf life. In other words, we work at a site or in a region with an eye toward answering certain questions. When those questions are answered, we might begin a related project, but we less and less frequently dive into the same river again.

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The reasons for this are complicated and probably have as much to do with issues like funding (and the difficulty getting funding to support a career (or decades) long projects and building the kind of persistent and sustaining infrastructure to make such projects possible) as fundamental changes in how archaeologists (at least in the Mediterranean) think about disciplinary problems and challenges. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the publish or perish treadmill that pushes most archaeologists to juggle multiple projects with different timelines and trajectories which range from relatively long-term study projects to short-term and more incisive field work ventures.

Whatever the reasons, many archaeologists think of rather goal oriented fieldwork with specific aims in mind and “endgames” for final publications, archiving, and site conservation, presentation, or what have you. At the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP) my colleagues and I wrapped up almost 15 years of work in the coastal zone of Pyla village by passing the project onto colleagues who are just starting their careers. Even as we are finishing our book, they’re working with us to start a new campaign of excavation on a coastal height called Vigla where we set down ten fairly limited soundings over three field seasons.  

I visited their project and “lent a hand” over the last two days and enjoyed their hospitality and banter. (Lending a hand for me involved watching them excavate through collapsed mud brick and commenting on how hard it seems and how much work it must be to dig through it.).  It was a bit bitter-sweet as my memories of work on the site filtered through my memories, but it was also really cool to see the new team so excited and engaged and motivated.

Tomorrow, David Pettegrew and I return to a site called Lakka Skoutara. This is an early-20th century settlement that the permanent residents have largely abandoned. We originally visited this site in 2000 (I think?) and have revisited regularly to document the formation processes at work in the structuring throughout this small upland valley. I’m looking forward to being back in the field with David. We haven’t managed to spend time together doing field work for a few years and his insights have helped me refine my archaeological thinking and seeing. 

It’s interesting that, in some ways, returning to sites after a few years never fails to reveal more about them. So archaeological returns are always a bit tricky. On the one hand, my experience has shown that returning to a site always offers the potential for new knowledge and insights. At the same time, leaving a site for another field team to study, document, and analyze ensures that sites are seen with fresh eyes, provide evidence for new questions, and refract through different methods and approaches.

Walls and Sherds from EF1

Over the past week, Scott Moore and I have tried to organize what we know about the area of EF1 at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus. The area was excavated by the Princeton Cyprus Expedition during two seasons, 1988 and 1989, and with three trenches. The area is to the northeast of South Basilica and its neighborhood and to the west of the area EG0. It stands on the “neck” of a narrow, north sloping ridge that extends toward the coast. While I’m not entirely sure where the Late Roman city center is at Polis, I’m assuming that it is under the modern village which stands largely to the south of the South Basilica with its cemetery and its partner in the area of EG0 which is also surrounded by burials. 

Excavations at EF1 produced a group of walls that shared a similar orientation as well as a significant body of pottery and other small finds. In 2016, we read most of the pottery from secure deposits and later this week, we’ll document the various small inventoried finds. The area appears to be some kind of industrial area with significant quantities of slag, some wasters, and (maybe) some other indicators of industrial use. The entire area of EF1 has signs of significant hydraulic engineering with at least two drains running through the buildings. I suspect its position on the north slope of a hill along the top of a relatively narrow ridge gave the area and its buildings certain advantages.

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Like so much of Polis, the number of secure deposits was relatively small. Part of this is the consequence the constant reconstruction and modification of the buildings at the site over the course of Late Antiquity. The earliest secure deposit is the floor packing of a lime floor associated with the earliest major wall in the area. In a clearly defined second phase, a new series of walls were built over and around the first series of wall with a new series of fills. The material in these two phases is barely distinguishable for one another chronologically or typologically so it’s pretty challenging to date either phase securely.

We do have one secure date for the area. A burial in the area likely after a period of abandonment seems to represent the last significant activity at the site. The burial  included a lead seal that was published a couple of years ago and dated to the second half of the 7th century. In other words, it seems likely that this area was abandoned by the end of the 7th century. 

What is intriguing is that by comparing the assemblage produced at EF1 with the assemblage from the South Basilica and there are some obvious differences. For example – and this is all very tentative – the EF1 assemblage appears to lack Dhiorios cooking pots, LR13 amphoras, and the latest forms of CRS, like the so-called CRS well form. Moreover, the only evidence for a few forms of Cypriot Red Slip comes from post-abandonment levels. CRS form 8, for example, appears exclusively in post-abandonment levels. That most of the material from EF1 and the South Basilica appears in secondary contexts in construction fills and other contexts that are not associated with a particular use. The opportunity to compare substantial assemblages from two areas of the same site provides us with some significant food for thought!

Summer Work: Polis 2018

I’m settling into the wonderful village of Polis-tis-Chrysochous in northwest Cyprus today after a long day of travel and a hectic end of the semester. As I recover from jet lag, I’ve found it convenient to sit awake a 2 am thinking through our priorities for this 2+ week study season.

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There are three things that I want to accomplish this summer.

1. EF1. Over the past two summers, we moved through the ceramics and stratigraphy excavated from the area a Polis designated (evocatively) as EF1. This area is – superficially – uncomplicated comprising two rooms, part of a passageway, and the remains of some kind of industrial feature. The vast majority of material from this area is Late Roman in date, and will likely reward a bit more rigorous study as we’ve become more adept at pulling apart the ceramic evidence from the 5th-late-7th century on the island.

Before we can even do that, however, we have to unpack a pretty dense (and closely superimposed) set of stratigraphic and architectural relationships. The area clearly consists of a series of walls constructed over 100 to 200 years following a similar orientation and perhaps supporting similar functions. Like in so many places at Polis, the control over water to manage drainage and to harness its energy in productive ways is important.

2. After Late Antiquity. The next thing that we’re working on is preparing material for our Medieval (and later) ceramicist to analyze. Over the last 10 years we’ve been filtering our research to avoid – except when absolutely necessary – the post-Late-Roman material from Polis. Fortunately, this has been pretty easy to do owing to the abundance of Late Roman questions (and material) available at the site. 

Nevertheless, we’ve felt like we can only see part of the picture and it is clear that many of our buildings and areas under study continued to function into the Medieval period with significant post-Ancient phases and transformations. This follows recent trends that have extended the reach of the long-late-antiquity well into the 7th, 8th, and even 9th centuries. On Cyprus, a growing interest in this continuity complements a critique of the “condominium” centuries, the impact of the Arab raids, and new assessment of interaction between Cyprus and the Near East in the Early Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. 

3. Other projects. The great and somewhat depressing thing about our work at Polis is that it has an almost unlimited number of research projects just waiting for someone willing to give them time and energy. For example, we have an assemblage of Roman lamps that need to be published, we have a seemingly infinite assemblage of Roman and Late Roman pottery that could be documented, quantified, and analyzed to shed light on the connections between the Cyprus and the wider Roman world, and we have (of course) another Early Christian basilica that is begging for study.

While we probably won’t be able to complete or even really get started on these other projects, there’s nothing more motivating than being around the sites and the material. Already, an hour standing around looking closely at EF1 produced certain insights that looking at a plan would not. Stay tuned for updates over the next couple of weeks!

Wesley College Wednesday

Over the last week or so, the Wesley College Documentation Project has shifted its attention from the buildings themselves and their physical fabrics to their history in the University of North Dakota archives where the Wesley College papers reside. The students have eagerly moved through archival collections for clues as to the history of the buildings. 

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They’ve found some great stuff that speaks to the day-to-day lives of students residing in Sayre and Larimore Hall, of students who were charged for new rugs after rendering theirs “too dirty to clean without being destroyed,” of damage to hallways from impromptu dormitory hockey games, and of Steinway pianos and of new electrical fixtures.

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At the same time, I’ve been patiently working to describe the rooms in Larimore Hall and will soon move on to Corwin, Sayre, and Robertson. I’ve been using our remarkable archive of photographs, my drawings, and a collection of plans which show Corwin/Larimore Hall in various phases of renovation in 1970s. 

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So far, I’ve focused on describing the second floor of Larimore Hall (or the 3rd floor depending on how you count!) and primarily on the architecture and furnishings rather than the small finds or objects present there. Writing up this stuff in tedious detail has really helped me wrap my head around the changes to the building and the complex interplay between its original and later form. This interplay demonstrated the tension between the 21st century building and its 20th century bones and preserved the physical memory of its past function even as its abandoned 21st-century form. For example, rooms used at in 21st century GTA offices saw the least modification during the 1979 remodeling demonstrating a kind of persistence of use over 30 years. Research spaces on the fourth floor featured more older furnishings than office spaces did on the second floor showing a greater tendency toward curating older objects. 

Part of the goal of this project has become to use intensive documentation as a way to commemorate these century-old buildings and to recognize their entire history from their origins with Wesley College to their 21st century demise.  

This is obviously still a work in progress, but you can download some fragments of my preliminary report here

Three Things Thursday: A Wesley College Coda, Reviewing Poetry, and Narrating Atari

I have three little things today that are swirling around in my head like the projected snowfall for later this morning. None of them are particularly profound, but they all might be something later. Ya heard it here first, folks.

1. Abiding and Corwin/Larimore Halls. This is coda for my post yesterday on the current status of the Wesley College Documentation Project. Over spring break we cajoled Mike Wittgraf to perform a little concert and recording in Corwin and Larimore Halls. The songs we selected were somber in tone and included the well-known hymn “Abide with Me.” The title of this hymn, of course, come from John 15:4-6 which is the start of the Passion.

Yesterday in a faculty meeting, I was fumbling for a word to describe an individual who stays with the dying, and a colleague suggested the word “abider” (our faculty meetings can go to some dark places). I wasn’t familiar with this term, but a few Googles later, it indeed shows that it has some modest currency in contemporary language. This got me thinking about our roles as archaeologists in documenting Wesley College.

Are we working as abiders allowing the buildings to tell their stories before they’re gone? I know this sounds hopeless sentimental, but I’ve been struck how even my short time around these buildings has allowed me a much greater appreciation for not only their architecture and spaces, but also the stories of the individuals whose lives intersected with these buildings over the century of their existence. 

“Change and Decay in all around I see, O Thou who changest not abide with me.” 

2. Poetry and Slow Reading. As editor of North Dakota Quarterly, I get books for review on a weekly basis. As a publisher of my own small press, I know the important role of circulating books for review. At the same time, not all works that come across our desk at NDQ are equally worthy of review, and it is another challenge entirely to match the book with an appropriate reviewer. As a result, we usually have a little pile of books that have not gone out for review yet and this pile has only grown larger as NDQ has shifted its attention to reorganizing and preparing for our shift from in-house publishing to being published by University of Nebraska Press. 

On Wednesday, I hang out in the NDQ office and during little breaks the back issues of NDQ and the pile of books to review beckon to me. So I’ve taken to picking up books of poetry or short fiction and … gasp… just reading them. Mostly I feel not qualified to judge their quality, but recently I’ve started to think that maybe I can speak about this material from a distinctive perspective. After all, as a non-poet, non-poetry reader, and never-taken-a-college-level-English-class perhaps I could offer an “everyperson” view of various little books.

It’s tempting to start to write a little review series on the books that we receive. They’d be less critical review and more impressionistic and spontaneous. They might be fun to write and at least a little entertaining to read.

3. Contemporaneity and Archaeology. Over the last few days, I’ve returned to long gestating (marinating?) article on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. The article was clumsy and poorly positioned, I think, but as I’ve let it rest for a bit, I do think that it has one thing to offer and that is a meditation on the issue of contemporaneity in archaeology (and particular in the work of archaeology of the contemporary world). As I have noted before, the assumption of the “broken tradition” between our world today and the world that we’re studying has, for centuries, allowed both history and archaeology to position the past in a place susceptible for study. By assuming the contemporaneity of the archaeologist and the archaeology, however, we disrupt this tidy arrangement and make space to recognize that the archaeologist and the archaeology are both enmeshed (or entangled) in a dense web of common relationships. Rodney Harrison has argued that these relationships produce what he has called surface assemblages. I’d like to add that understanding contemporaneity in surface assemblages and between surface assemblages and the archaeologist, opens and maybe even requires new forms of narration that accommodates the various overlapping webs of meaning making that such contemporaneity recognizes. For example, it will be increasingly difficult to approach archaeological knowledge making as an impersonal enterprise removed – through either a broken tradition or an objective scientific lens – from the person of the archaeologist and the larger culture. How do we embrace this freedom from conventional practices?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Book Tuesday: Atari Age and Artifacts in Silicon Valley

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of reading casually just a bit in two books. First, I’ve read most of Michael Z. Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT 2017), and at the same time, I discovered Christine A. Finn’s Artifacts: An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley (MIT 2001). Both books offer distinctive impressions of late 20th century digital culture and contribute in some way to my long term research trajectories.

The utility of Newman’s book is more immediate. He frames the emergency of video game in the 1970s and 1980s against the backdrop of the video arcade with its seedy reputation inherited from gaming parlors of the early 20th century. (In my own experience, I never really understood why my parents did not let me go to the Silver Ball Arcade as a kid. There was something seedy about it in my parents’ mind (and a waste of money) that placed that space out of bounds for me and my brothers). Atari’s success involved translating the thrill of arcade games while domesticating them. The early advertisements for Atari, then, emphasized their domestic setting and showed families playing the games together. By the mid-1980s, however, the idyllic family setting had taken on a more male slant as mothers and daughters disappear and fathers, sons, and brothers remained, but still in the relative comfort of the domestic environment. The domestication of the arcade took place in two stages with the first locating the games at home among the entire family and the second returning game play to a male realm while still safely ensconced in the home. The final stage involved transporting the players from the home to the fantasy world of the game which almost alway was encoded male. Sports, war, and adventure outside the home (in space, in fantastic worlds, or as the protagonist of a feature film) remained the male domain for most of the 1980s (and perhaps today) as the safely domesticated games invited players to engage in less mundane adventures in fantastic landscapes. 

Finn’s book was one of this books that I should have read earlier. Finn, an Oxford trained archaeologist who had a career as a journalist, traveled to Silicon Valley in 2000 to experience the most talked about landscape in late-20th century American geography. While the book isn’t exactly a tourist guide, like that offered by Forrest Mims Siliconnections (1986), Finn is clear that her work “is a kind of Cook’s tour of my own, a brief one, and from the perspective of an archaeologist as foreign correspondent” (xiii).

As someone who just wrote a tourist guide to a 21st century landscape, I was thrilled to find that someone else had had this idea before me. Finn is a better writer than I am, but she also views Silicon Valley less through the lens of the tourist and more as a journalist. In particular, she focused on the characters whom she met during her travels. More than that, though, she demonstrates a keen eye for history and change in the Silicon Valley landscape and the often ironic efforts to reclaim some of the historical landscape of the Valley, but in a way that does not disrupt development and a sense of progress. A historic cherry farm gives way to high end shopping that includes a shop that sells imported cherries and cherry themed gifts. A retired computer engineer recreates a rustic garden in his backyard including a writing shed to escape from the very bustle that allowed him this luxury. Historic buildings are celebrated and moved to more convenient locations for visitors coming to the region for technology related business or travel. The landscapes that Finn creates demonstrates the deep ambivalence toward the changes in our late-20th century world. Her book bridged the gap between William Least Heat Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map), which is filled with compelling characters, and my own book, The Bakken, where I tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to push the changing Bakken landscape to the fore.