Industrial Practice and Archaeology

Lately I’ve been struggling to revise a paper that I delivered at the European Association of Archaeologists meeting last month for submission to the European Journal of Archaeology. In my blog post today, I’m trying to work through these ideas as explicitly as possible to work out some thinking problems in my current article draft. Most of what I’ve written here, I’ve tried to articulate before on the blog. The ideas aren’t new, but I’m hoping that I can get more refined in how I state them.

I argue that historically, industrial practices and the assembly line in particular, have exerted a strong influence over the organization of archaeological work. This is not a terribly unique argument and draws on a well-established body of scholarly work from as early as the 1980s and intersecting with larger critiques of archaeology as a distinctly modern practice. The influence of the logic of the assembly line, for example, encourages specialization in expertise and skills, looks to scientific management practices to organize labor, and prizes efficiency.

While the logic of the assembly lines is most explicit in contract archaeology where time is literally money, it is hardly surprising that it exerts an influence of academic archaeological practice as well particularly in the 1980s and 1990s when the emergence of New Archaeology reinforced the need for consistent field practices to produce rigorous, and frequently, quantitative data for hypothesis testing. At the same time, an intensification of pressures within academic archaeology to comply with permit requirements, to maximize the use of grant funding, and to produce consistent results from an increasingly volunteer (and often student) workforce, further encouraged the model of the assembly line and its influence on efficiency and consistency. Finally, and perhaps most obviously, there are parallels between the organization of archaeological practice and the logic of higher education. The assembly line exerted a clear influence over how students and faculty work within the American university system (and systems influenced by it). Specialization is prized and learning (and research) is divided into specialized compartments that pair specialists with students in the service of explicit teaching or research goals. As a result, the organization of academia and the shifting character of archaeology – especially as it became increasingly driven by methods and practices – found new opportunities for convergence. 

Digital tools and practices largely aligned with the practical needs of the archaeological assembly line and a major current in archaeological thinking has emphasized the way that digital tools can improve efficiency and consistency in archaeological recording. The most commonly used digital tools – like total stations and GPS units, laptop computers, databases, and GIS software, and digital cameras – came into use because they were easier, quicker, and better than earlier analogue practices. In many ways, the logic of these digital tools followed the logic of the assembly line. The tools encourage us to break down the world into manageable bits and bytes that can be reassembled when necessary to produce knowledge. The utility of databases, for example, is that they follow so closely the tendency to divide the complex into fragments, just as the assembly line divides complex tasks into simpler ones or the American university divides knowledge into subjects, courses, and classes. The parallel between digital tools and archaeological work facilitated the integration of these tools with field practice. 

At the same time, the modularity inherent in digital practice and digital logic opened the door to new ways to organize archaeological work. The assembly line was, by definition, linear, and this offered a model of archaeological work that proceeded from the field to the publication, the fragmentation of processes that digital tools allowed and, in some ways, required also undermined the linearity of the assembly line process. Digital tools, particularly with the spread of the internet, reduced the friction that maintained the linear movement of archaeological knowledge toward the goal of publication. It is now possible for the fragments and specialized work to be disaggregated from the larger goal of archaeological work and distributed to be used for different purposes. 

In fact, recent work in digital archaeology has sought to increase the value of this disaggregated archaeological information outside of the linear progress from trench to public. The push to publish archaeological “data” with robust metadata describing its organization, character, and utility makes it possible for others to understand and query this data as well as redeploy it to answer different research questions and for different goals. The growth of Linked Open Data standards explicitly encourages the (re?)use of data by different projects. The interoperability of this data complicates the linearity of archaeological work and introduces new ways to consider the production of archaeological knowledge.

It is at this point that the logic of logistics becomes increasingly significant for archaeological work. Whereas there was an expectation, if not a requirement, that assembly lines be arranged to limit the friction along their course, logistics emphasize the modularity of objects across different networks. The most obvious and well known examples of objects designed to facilitate logistics are shipping pallets and shipping containers which have standardized sizes that allow for different goods to be moved through expansive networks with a minimum of friction. In terms of packaging, standardization becomes a shared practice that offers certain advantages to anyone who chooses to prepare their goods in a certain way. More complex logistics, however, involve bespoke practices that allow not only for the distribution of goods through networks, but also their use in a wide range of contexts and environments. The ability for certain goods to move through networks but also to have value across networks represents the organizational logic of logistics. It’s not enough for an object to be produced with maximum efficiency. Real value comes when that efficiency is distributed through a network in ways that mitigate variability in markets, for example, or in labor or shipping costs as well as friction caused by borders and distance. In short, efficiency in logistics involves reducing the friction caused by distance, culture, and contexts while at the same time preserving the utility of the objects being dispersed. 

For an archaeologist, the growing influence of logistics as a model for understanding archaeological knowledge making offers certain contradictions. There is obvious value in the ability to reuse “raw” archaeological data to address issues or questions independent from the original goal of a project. At the same time, logistics emphasizes, in some ways, the decontextualizing of archaeological work. In a very tangible way, the ability of archaeological data across national boundaries and to move far beyond its physical context or provenience challenge traditional views of cultural ownership that are often located in a distinctive sense of place or culture. While most projects have sought to keep this in mind as they produce and disseminate archaeological data and have installed protocols that, for example, prevent the location of sensitive sites from being known, these efforts push against infrastructure – such as the web and linked data standards – designed to facilitate the seamless flow of knowledge. The development of elaborate metadata schemes offers another example of how the narrow context of archaeological runs counter to pressures of interoperability and the dissemination of data. Site specific schemes and typologies, while potentially more valuable in describing the situatedness of archaeological information in a particular place, also make this data less valuable for reuse. While this might appear to be largely a practical issue that technology can solve, they also have larger implications for the way we structure and value archaeological knowledge in general. As we work to adopt practices that make it easier for our data (and knowledge) to move more seamlessly from a particular context, place, or situation, we also transform the nature of archaeological knowledge and work. 

Archaeology has always involved creating knowledge from a specific site and in a specific context that has value that goes beyond the trench or place. The logic of logistics and digital tools, however, provides a model for digital practices that is both a development of such modern approaches to knowledge making as the industrial assembly line and a significant challenge to the significance of context and provenience in archaeological practice.  



Sacred Cyprus and GIS

Over the weekend, I read Giorgos Papantoniou’s and Niki Kyriakou’s article in the most recent AJA, “Sacred Landscapes and the Territoriality of Iron Age Cypriot Polities: The Applicability of GIS.” Not only was it great to read something on Cyprus in the AJA, but it was cool to read something on the neighborhood of Kition where we worked for the last 15 years. Papantoniou and Kyriakou’s project focused on the western extent of  Kition’s control in the Iron Age whereas our project studied a site, Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla, to the east of the city.

Papantoniou and Kyriakou studied legacy data from the small Iron Age sanctuary site of Vavla-Kapsalaes which was identified by the Vasilikos Valley Project. They consider whether this site is a border sanctuary between Kition and Amathous further west and whether it marked the edges of Kition’s or Amathous’s territorial, political, and economic control. By drawing upon data produced by a rather robust GIS, they were able both to propose a method for assessing such situations and to propose that Vavla-Kapsalaes (and several other nearby sites) would have likely been under Amathousian control for most of the Iron Age. In this way, the article contributes to the decade old debates concerning the spatial organization of the city-kingdoms of Iron Age Cyprus and serves as a useful reminder that Rupp’s famous application of Thiessen polygons to propose political boundaries between the various polities on the island was provision and suggestive rather than definitive. 

This conclusions, however, only scratches the surface of this complex article. Papantoniou and Kyriakou develop a dynamic model to assess the relationship between the sanctuary at Vavla-Kapsalaes and the Iron Age political and economic centers at Kition, Amathous, and Idalion. The model integrated at a micro-regional and regional level stable resources and features of the landscape from the presence of arable land, copper rich pillow lavas, river valleys, passable routes, and visibility.The authors set these more stable features of the landscape against the artifacts from Vavla-Kapsalaes, the iconography present at the sanctuary, the ebb and flow of Iron Age settlement in the Vasilikos valley, and the history of the larger urban centers nearby. The results is a highly nuanced and complex analysis that remains suggestive and dynamic rather than stable and structural. This kind of analysis, of course, is particular appropriate for borderlands and liminal regions which would have drifted over time between central power centers and also served as a locus for territorialization of these larger polities.

I’ve often wondered whether a more robust analysis of the regional and micro-regional characteristics of the neighborhood of Pyla-Vigla would produce similarly complex and nuanced results. The site of Vigla almost certainly possessed an Iron Age sanctuary which likely stood on a major route between the kingdoms of Salamis and Kition. The late Iron Age fortification of the area, its prominent coastal position, and its rapid expansion in the Hellenistic and Roman period suggests that the micro-region of Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla transitioned from a zone of religious and military activity in the Iron Age to an area of settlement after the Hellenistic and Roman rulers of the island suppressed the political autonomy (and rivalry) of the city kingdoms. 

What is the most intriguing aspect of Papantoniou’s and Kyriakou’s study is its willingness to consider the limits of a territorial model for understanding Iron Age polities on Cyprus in general. While no one denies that the city kingdoms were territorial states, the margins of their political, economic, religion, and even cultural control need not be articulated in purely territorial terms. In the conclusion they note that human affinities and identities, including spiritual and emotional attachments to particular places and practices, do more to shape the nature of territorial control than neatly defined borders.

This conclusion has a particularly salient modern significance as in the modern era we’ve witnessed rigid political borders defining the rights of individuals in ways that often defy, subvert, or attempt to redefine their cultural, religious, or social connections to the wider world. As the authors show, despite the tendency for GIS to produce rigid and linear marks on maps, the integration of GIS technologies and historical models allow us to trace territorialization as a continuous process in the past. This offer a useful reminder that border have never been impermeable marks on the landscape, but continuously negotiated and dynamic spaces.

Three Thing Wednesday

It the time of the week (and frankly, semester) where the best I can do is muster three quick thoughts for the ole bloggeroo.

1. Inspiration. In my historical methods class yesterday, we read Michelet and discussed historical writing that sought to convey the emotional power to inspire readers and create the powerful emotional bonds that often define nationalism. My class was singularly unimpressed with Michelet’s project and declared him biased, unprofessional, and (in classic North Dakota style) arrogant. (Reader’s note: In North Dakota, arrogance is a blanket term to describe anyone who does anything in a way that deviates from fairly narrow norms. The assumption is that personal motivations and a sense of individual superiority are the only possible reason to be different. Standing out is the same as standing above and is a moral flaw.)  

This got me thinking about whether I do enough as a teacher (and, here, I’m thinking about UND in particular) to inspire our students. We do well to instill within our students a kind of a sense of confidence in the organization of the university and the curriculum. Students dutifully fulfill requirements, advance through majors, and achieve credentials. In fact, the confidence in the structured experience of credentialing is sufficient that many programs are concocting certificates, minors, and, there’s even talk of “badges” that indicate an individual has fulfilled the requirements for a particular program. The more of these credentials that exist, the more they structure how a student engages with a curriculum and forms expectations of performance and achievement. In such an environment, there is little room for the kind of individual or personal experiences evoked by Michelet, in part, because such experiences fit awkwardly within a curriculum that emphasizes the achievement of certain credentials that have explicit and often quantifiable benchmarks. In this context, experiences like self discovery, inspiration, and, even just chance, are, at best, epiphenomenal to the accomplishment of a common goal, and, at worst, a distraction or complicating factor that requires streamlining. 

In other words, as higher education becomes more formalized, structured, and quantifiable, it also leaves less room for inspiration, contingency, and inspiration. To paraphrase a colleague of mine in music, this song achieves its intended goals because every note is where I learned to put it in class. I need to do more to challenge this view of education in my students. 

2. Open Access. I had a nice chat with a colleague the other day about open access publishing in archaeology. She made the point that many graduate students or early-career academics can’t afford the time (or the risk) to do what I’ve done and start an open access press. In fact, many of them can’t even necessarily afford to publish in open access journals or series because many of these journals rank lower than their limited access counterparts and universities have come to rely more and more on the reputation of journals (some of which are from commercial publishers) to vouch for the quality of academic work. These are understandable and real problems for open access scholarship.

There are, however, some solutions that do not involve taking a risk by publishing in a new, untested, or less well-established, open access publication. Cite open access publications in your work. One of the key metrics for establishing the quality of a journal or publisher is, for better or for worse, citation counts in other quality publications. There are plenty of high quality open access publications that contribute to a wide range of fields. If you want to promote open access publishing, be sure to include these in your footnotes, citations, and bibliographies!  

3. Extended Intelligence. I need to get back to revising the ramshackle paper that I pre-circulated prior to the EAA meeting. It was not terrible, but it had – as the kids say – a lot going on. I would like to develop a bit more fully the sections on “logistics,” “assemblages,” and the archaeological “supply chain.”  In particular, I’d like to tie it a bit more closely to the concept of transhumanism and a transhuman archaeology. 

Yesterday, I stumbled across some of Joichi Ito’s work on extended intelligence and think that it offers an appealing hook for understanding how networked intelligence leverages the rhetoric (and technology) of logistics to transform and expand the very concept of thinking, knowing, and even in some cases feeling and experiencing (check out this rather extensive bibliography of the work of the MIT Affective Computing group). I’m not sure how much of this will make it into the final draft of the paper, but Ito’s reading of Norbert Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1954). As quoted by Ito, Wiener opined:

Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.”



The Dog Park at the End of the Universe

This is a follow up post on something that I wrote a few years ago. I’ve been thinking about the space of Lincoln Park especially after reading Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina (2016) and thinking about David Haeselin’s edited volume Haunted by Waters (2017). It’s also a chapter in my fictional book of essays on life in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

I run in a place called Lincoln Park in Grand Forks, North Dakota. My usual run loops down through the frisbee golf course and follows a path that runs along the Red River of the North, and then does a loop on some of the park roads before returning to the riverside path. The scenery is pleasant and the route is uncrowded. 

This route also takes me by the dog park at the end of the universe. It is a fenced-off acre of the park where dogs can run and be free and do dog stuff. It is also at the end of time. 

Lincoln Park is built atop what used to be the thriving Lincoln Drive neighborhood in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The flood of 1997 destroyed the houses of Lincoln Drive and the Army Corp raised whatever was left to install a new series of more substantial flood walls on the land side of the neighborhood. Today the area is Lincoln Park. Most of the roads of the neighborhood are covered with grass today, but even the most casual stroll through the park makes their routes obvious. Depressions marking the backfilled basements of the destroyed homes flank these routes. Some of the curbs and surface of Omega Avenue remain visible, though.  

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As an archaeologists, I’m intently aware that time is a particularly useful linear construct for ordering events. It is part of what makes us human, I suspect. As with any linear construct, it has a beginning and an end. Time is also a distinctly local phenomenon. In some places, time appears to move very slowly (say, during a boring lecture on campus) and in other places it races along with reckless abandon (say, during my runs when the more I try to go fast, the faster time slips away). The dog park marks the end of the Lincoln Park universe.



In fact, the very presence of dogs amid the ruins of this neighborhood gives the space a funerary cast. As Homer tells us in Book 1 of the Iliad, Achilles’ anger left the bodies of heroes to be consumed by dogs and birds and consigned their souls to Hades in the underworld.

The underworld is set off from the world of the living by the river Styx. On the one side of the river is the space of time and on the other, the timeless afterlife. I’ve never followed the Red River of the North but I suspect it goes to somewhere timeless (maybe Canada, but no one knows for sure). The flood walls keep the timeless river at bay, but also opens a gash along its banks where time erodes so slowly that it stops.

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Lincoln Park evokes the J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World where rising sea levels drag humanity back to primordial time. Jeff VanderMeer’s overgrown and abandoned world from the Southern Reach Trilogy likewise frustrates human time by allowing nature to assert its dominance over a marshy, riverine coast. 

There are some signs, of course, that time refused to let go without a struggle in Lincoln Park. Every now and then a chunk of concrete pushes up through the grass and filled foundations draw surface into their hollows. When storms fell trees planted along the now-buried roads, the other trees appear to stand just a bit taller and more defiant in response. They seem to challenge nature in the same way that the neatly ordered grid of homes standing on streets just on the other side of the wall does. Cherry Street, Oak Street, Reeves Drive, Belmont Drive do their best to remind us of the past, of time, and of the future, but the now buried and once-inundated Maple Street, Omega Street, and Lincoln Drive present a powerful counter argument.

Lincoln Park and the dog park at the end of the universe are useful to have nearby (even through my dogs can’t go to the dog park any more. The little Greek dog can’t stop starting arguments that my larger yellow dog feels compelled to finish). It reminds us that the river doesn’t care about our notions of time and that soon enough our entire world will be food for dogs and birds.

Contemporaneity and Colonialism, Eurocentrism, and Historical Archaeology

This weekend, I got my very first paper copy of the European Journal of Archaeology. I felt very international! 

The EJA is one of those journals where I always find at least one article that intrigues me. The most recent issue had an article titled “Modern Colonialism, Eurocentrism and Historical Archaeology: Some Engendered Thoughts” by Sandra Montón-Subías and Almudena Hernando. The article is open access.

The authors argue that “de-Eurocentring” archaeology and history is more than just opening our disciplines to indigenous voices, expanding our views of agency, and developing more socially aware practices, but also needs to include critiques of the very basis of disciplinary logic. In particular, they suggest that history and archaeology focus on change at the expense of stability and continuity. The former tends to celebrate individuality which, in turns, tends to emphasize both the development of hierarchy and technology. It goes without saying that this trajectory has tended to emphasize men. In contrast, they argue, women often play key roles in maintaining social stability particularly in non-hierarchical societies, but these roles, experiences, and spaces tend to be overlooked because our history and archaeology tend to focus on change. In fact, the projecting of change, and ideas of progress and development, backward from the Enlightenment into earlier periods (and the emphasis on, say, developmental models of periodization and endless debates over continuity and change. The historical trajectory of male, capitalist, expansionist, hierarchical, and technological Europe has become a model for all societies and change is in these places is seen as evidence for the advanced state of European culture and an excuse for colonial practices that, at best, seek to elevate the condition of “undeveloped” societies.

There’s a lot for me to unpack in this article and many citations to follow (particularly those related to “relational identity”), but it got me wondering about what an expanded role of contemporaneity plays in destabilizing on of a key element in defining discontinuity in archaeology. As a number of archaeological theorists have argued, our knowledge of the past often requires us to recognize a “broken tradition” between the time of the archaeologist and the past. While scholars have obviously challenged this deeply modern way of viewing the work and perspective of an archaeologist, it is difficult to deny that the disciplinary logic of archaeology insists on the place and time of the archaeologist is very much separate from the time occupied by the objects that they excavate, study, and interpret. The accounts from the prevalence of the metaphor of excavation which sees the surface as the present and levels beneath the surface as belonging to a past otherwise hidden from the archaeologist’s gaze, in modern and archaeological thought. In other words, the notion of change – and radical change at that – is implicit in archaeological work as long as the archaeologist remains situated outside of archaeological or historical time and works from the perspective of a perpetual present.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the idea of contemporaneity in archaeology. It seems to me that an archaeology of the contemporary world upsets the idea that the time of the archaeologist and the time that they study are different. It undermines the notion that time is defined by breaks and discontinuities that are so often viewed as the manifestations of radical moments of individuality pushing back against the torpor of tradition. The most common definitions of the contemporary (the last 20? Or 30 years?) press back directly against the accelerated pace of modernity by insisting on the long present. By locating ourselves in the same time that we study we insist on continuity in a discipline defined by change.

I’m not naive enough to suggest that this simple time shift will decolonize archaeology, but perhaps its a way to open more space for critical engagement with gender, social inequality, and the narratives of progress that underpin the logic of our disciplines.  



Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean: Dissecting Digital Divides

Next month, I’m giving a paper at a conference called “Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean” and hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. It’s title is “Dissecting Digital Divides: Teaching, Writing, and Making Knowledge of the Mediterranean Past.”

Right now, I only have a title and the dread feeling that I really have nothing significant to say about digital approaches to teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. 

I do, of course, have a little swarm of unrelated ideas and a strong yearning to be the kind of senior professor who can give a paper on three of four random things to a rapt audience. (Rather than feeling like an undergraduate who is trying to recycle the same three ideas that I’ve had since 2004 into another paper and hoping that nobody notices!).

So here are my ideas.

1. Digital Divide. There’s been a good bit of scholarship on the digital divide in secondary and higher education. The digital divide, in its most basic form, argues that a significant divide exists between those who use and have access to digital technologies and those who do not. This divide usually mapped along social, economic, and regional lines. Rural states, like North Dakota, tend to fall on one side of the digital divide especially when access to broadband internet is concerned, but I’d also argue —at least anecdotally— that students at UND are generally less technologically savvy and comfortable in digital environments than their more affluent and more suburban counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. 

I need to get data for this, but just observing my classes over the last few semesters, I continue to be struck by the significant number of students for whom technology is not a constant companion. Many of my students do not bring their laptops to class regularly, for example. In a recent field project that involved using mobile phones to take video, a number of students had such outdated phones that they could not accommodate more than short video clips; one student had a flip phone. While it was easy enough to negotiate the different access to technology, it remains clear that the digital divide—in terms of hardware—remains firmly in place. (A recently updated “smart classroom” with a series of small group work stations relies on students to use their own laptops too access the large, shared monitor. This seems like an optimistic implementation of technology.)   

Access to the right hardware, however, is only part of the digital divide. Over the last decade of teaching at UND, it has become clear to me that something as simple as a broken hyperlink or a pdf document oriented the wrong way, represents a significant barrier to accessing information. A significant group of students lack the standard tool kit of web “work arounds” that range from savvy web searches to negotiating the standard elements of user interfaces across multiple software. Even something as simple as using a mobile device as a quick and dirty scanner or looking for an article on or institutional repositories that they can’t access at UND remains on the fringes of their practice (even when such approaches are modeled in class).     

In my larger Scale-Up style class where groups of 9 work together to produce text, it was pretty apparent that even relatively simply digital interfaces – like editable Wikis or shared documents in Google or Microsoft 365 – caused myriad small scale obstacles that frustrated students and complicated group work. 

2. Prosumer and Consumers. My experience teaching at UND has suggested that access to hardware and familiarity with software (and these often go hand-in-hand) sketches one level of the digital divide and contributes to the existence of the “second level digital divide.” The second level divide maps the difference between individuals who are consumers of digital material on the web and those who are so-called “prosumers” of digital and web-based content. I contend that this second level divide is far more problematic that the first level divide for implementing digital approaches to teaching and, as a result, I have dedicated more time to cultivating prosumer culture among my students and demonstrating how digital tools facilitate certain kinds of collective knowledge making.

I will admit that my general approach is a naive one. I continue to have a certain amount of faith that the last unfettered wilds of the internet hold out a glimmer of hope for a society that is far more likely to be shackled, monitored, and manipulated by technology than liberated by it. I want my students to understand the power of Wikipedia, the ecosystem that produced the growing number of open educational resources and good quality open access software, and the potential, if not unproblematic character, of maker culture, and be prepared to contribute to it. 

On the other hand, I also understand that most aspects of prosumer culture have been coopted by the usual suspects of capitalism, exploitation, sexism, racism, and technological solutionism. By producing new knowledge, creative works, and tools, we are also likely to be producing profits for transnational corporations who are as comfortable limiting access to our own work as they are preventing us from foment even very small revolutions that cannot be monetized. As the kids say: “the revolution will now be monetized.”   

I still have hope, though, and at very least I want to work to undermine still-persistent attitudes that certain incredibly exploitative industries (like textbook publishing) represent a meaningful source of authority in the time of Wikipedia. 

3. The Other Digital Divide. History students obsess over and are baffled by the distinction between primary and secondary sources. For students of the ancient Mediterranean, their consternation is understandable and useful in unpacking the relative uselessness of this distinction among practicing historians. A source is a source and only primary or secondary in relation to its use. 

Practicing archaeologists sometimes find ourselves in the same bind, of course. The divide between “data” and “interpretation,” for example, coincides with the primary and secondary source divide among historians. The persistence of terms like “raw data” (which I think is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from use) reveals an understanding of archaeological knowledge making the divides data from interpretation. It seems to me that digital data makes this divide all the more convenient in part because the data itself appears so distinct from interpretative texts, and partly because digging down into the data represents a useful play on the modernist assumption that excavation (literally or metaphorically) provides access to a view of the past less encumbered by present interpretation. While intellectually, we may understand this divide as naive—as generations of archaeologists who celebrate reflexivity and methodology has taught us, we nevertheless tend to lean on the distinction between data and interpretation to frame our conversations. Endless references to archaeological data populate academic conferences, publications, and, I suspect, our teaching. For students who continue to want to see “facts” as the antidote to “fake news,” the transparent use of data appears to be a compelling ontological tonic for their epistemological anxiety. 

To my mind, this digital divide is every bit a pernicious as the other digital divides described in this post. In fact, it might be more dangerous in the era of “Big Data” than the other digital divides because it tends to see data as holding a particular kind of fundamental and inescapable authority in how it describes the world.  

4. Prosumption Critique. For the last 5 years, I’ve taught a large, Introduction to Western Civilization class at the University of North Dakota in a Scale-Up style classroom. The class generally enrolled 150-180 students and the room was set up for them to sit around round, 9-person tables. Each table had three laptops connected to a monitor and also came with a whiteboard and a microphone for the students to play with when bored. A central teaching station allowed me to observe most of the groups and to project content from the tables onto four large projection screens in the corners of the room.

The design of the room encouraged students work together and at least in theory sought to mitigate the hardware aspects of the digital divide by ensuring that at least three students had access to a laptop. In the most common implementations of this design, a student or students worked as the scribe for the table on a provided laptop or students worked in smaller groups, three to a laptop, sometimes installed with appropriate software for the task at hand. While I did not formally leverage the practical aspects of three-laptop design, it did work to mitigate the uneven access to technology among my students.

The class sought to mitigate the “second level digital divide” by encouraging students too critically work as prosumers of educational content. In practice, this involved having the students write a Western Civilization textbook with each table working on a series of chapters that would come together at the end fo the class as a completed book. This task encouraged students to recognize the value of their own voice, critical abilities, and their ability (and maybe even responsibility) to produce their own historical narratives and analysis. It also subverts some of the economic and political power of textbook publishers, although, I do ask them to buy a used copy of an older version of a textbook as a model.

Finally, the students start with more or less a blank document. I do not provide an approved list of primary or secondary sources or even offer much in the way of a critical guide to navigating the internet. Most students get that journal articles are “better” than random webpages (of uncertain authorship and content), that Wikipedia is a good place to glean chronology, geography, and additional sources, and that historical arguments are only as good as the sources they identify to build their arguments. If they can’t find good evidence for an argument, then no amount of rhetorical savvy is likely to make it compelling.


At the same time, this approach de-emphasizes the idea that there is a body of data “out there” ready for consumption, analysis, and interpretation. Instead, it encourages the students to see the body of useful evidence and data as the product of their research questions and priorities. The “raw material” of history is not something that is “mined” for knowledge, but something that’s built up as evidence FOR arguments about the past. 

In an era where relational data is literally being treated and traded as a commodity, it is hardly surprising that we envision knowledge making as a kind of extractive industry (and, here, I’m thinking of a paper that I recall my colleague Sheila Liming giving a few years back on the metaphor of “data mining” and “text mining”) rather than, say, performative or generative. It seems to me that encouraging students to be critical and conscientious prosumers of historical knowledge offers a little space to push back on both the economic and intellectual (or at very least metaphorical or rhetorical) underpinnings of our digital world.     


Publishing Archaeology

Over the weekend, I read Amara Thorton’s Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People (UCL 2018). The book documents the efforts by late 19th and 20th century archaeologists to publish popular and accessible works on archaeology. She brings together these books with deep dives in the publishers’ and archaeologists’ archives and offers intriguing perspectives on how and why archaeologists worked with publishers to produce accessible, popular books that introduced the public to their sites, outlined the value of scientific practices, and allowed for more thoughtful tourism to the Eastern Mediterranean. 

More than that, it provided important insights into the professionalization of the discipline. Many of the characters of Thorton’s book were full-time, Mediterranean archaeologists who looked to popular publishing to fund their work both directly through the proceeds and by attracting subscribers to support their excavations. At the same time publishers recognized the potential audience for popular works on archaeology. An interest in archaeology paralleled the growing interest in travel and tourism among an expanding and literate middle class. The turn of the 20th century was also the start of a golden age of publishing in the UK where it was possible to produce, distribute, and sell low cost books. In short there existed the infrastructure, the audience and the motivation for popular works in archaeology. 

The book got me thinking about a few things as an archaeologist and a publisher. These are not meant to be critiques of the book, but rather reflections on whether the situation that Thorton documented in the early 20th century might have significance for 21st century academics. 

1. Popularizing Archaeology. Over the last decade, there has been more and more of a call for academics to produce popular works for the general public. While I’m not opposed to this idea, I’ve often thought that the recent pressure on academics – particularly in the humanities – to share their research in popular ways was out of step with the realities of academic work. For example, most academics do not have the time to pursue vigorously both research and popular writing. Both require more than just a casual commitment to the task to be successful. Secondly, producing high quality popular history or archaeology requires the commitment of publishers and editors to work with faculty to produce accessible works that will sell to audiences. Third, there has to be an audience for this work at a scale that is sustainable for the investment from publishers. Finally, such work needs to be institutionally incentivized because writing for the public will detract from our other responsibilities whether those are research or teaching or service.

Finally, and most importantly, calls for humanities scholars to be more engaged with the general public tend to overlook that full-time scholars in the humanities teach (or are in public facing positions at, say, museums or historical sites). In other words, we already make our work accessible on a daily basis to our students.

2. Funding the Future. It was particularly striking that relatively few of the authors in Thorton’s book had regular teaching positions. Some had research positions a museums or universities or other administrative posts to support their travels and work, but few had access to the resources that we have today. The motivation to publish for a popular audience was not, then, the recognition that the public deserved to understand the work of archaeologists, but rather often driven by financial necessity. With the rise of grant and institutionally funded research in the mid-20th century, the need to write for the public declined. 

In the 21st century, funding for research in archaeology and history looks to be an increasing challenge for academics. Not only are the number of tenure-track positions in decline (with their access both to institutional stability and the sustained investment in research), but research dollars from federal coffers (via the NEH and NSF, for example) increasingly scarce and competitive to acquire. On the one hand, this would appear to be the perfect opportunity for a new wave of popular archaeology to support research and scholarly writing. In fact, this kind of market-driven view of academic work seems to inform attitudes at the NEH and among university administrators. At its best, this would seem to suggest a more democratic approach to research.

On the other hand, this approach to funding research – or at least the view that accessibility should be a criteria for funding research – creates an arena where the market drives research as much as research questions and problems. Of course, this already occurs in the sciences, where applied research receives more funding than basic science, and that has shifted the character of university research. It would be intriguing (and to my mind, not entirely positive) to imagine how shifting attention to popular research in the humanities would shape the future discipline.

3. Possibilities of Publishing. Pushing academics to publish popular works may also require a shift in how publishing itself works. There are no lack of publishers looking to monetize the production of scholars and some of the more intriguing passages of Thorton’s work demonstrate that this was the case in the early 20th century as well. In fact, Thorton’s work shows a balance between books commissioned by publishers and works proposed by authors.

In the 21st century, it’s never been easier to publish popular works, but the audience for these works (and the competition to get them recognized) has never been more fierce. Getting a book recognized is harder than just producing good content, but also requires savvy advertising, careful attention to production, and getting access to institutional markets as well individual subscribers. As archaeology looks to the new ways of disseminating knowledge, publishing also goes beyond the traditional print media platforms to codex style books. As Thorton notes, the mid-20th century saw a number of cross media ventures which crossed from print-book popularity to radio and then television. The complexities of these markets in the 21st century – especially in the age of YouTube, streaming audio, podcasts, and social media – puts added pressure on publishers and popularizers to figure out how to get their work into the hands of an appreciative audience. An iconic book cover – like Penguin Books’ famous Pelican covers – isn’t enough (although it doesn’t hurt). 

All this other stuff – from design to marketing and promotion – represents investments of money, time, and expertise. Popular publishing requires more than academic will, but also investment from consumers and publishers needed to develop the infrastructure to accommodate and promote significant works across a range of media platforms. 

If Archaeologists in Print was written to describe popular archaeological publishing in the 21st century, it would be a very different book, even if some of the main contours of the discipline remained the same.



Transumanism and Archaeology

I was pretty excited and anxious about my panel at last week’s European Association of Archaeologists meeting. This was partly because I had to travel, but partly because I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the concept of transhumanism and how it might be applied to archaeology. 

I was gratified to discover that the outlines of a posthuman and transhuman archaeology were as clear as the tortured characters in a Philip K. Dick novel who struggled to understand their own ontology. Ontological issues aside, the papers in the panel presented a practical posthumanism that encompassed the full range of archaeological work from the edge of the trench or survey unit to communicating finds and experiences to the public. 

While I’m still processing this panel, I have been mulling three things as I look toward revising my paper for consideration in the European Journal of Archaeology

1. Beyond Digital. I have tended to understand trans and posthumanism as a product of digital tools and practices or at very least modern technology. In my mind, these terms described ways in which modern technology – from the use of fossil fuels to latest immersive digital technology – transformed human engagement with the world. Several papers in the panel, however, pushed me to think about transhumanism as a far more complex phenomenon that reached back to the very first use of tools by humans. In effect, the panel got me wondering whether humans have always been transhuman. Just as Latour’s (and other’s) critiques of modernity has left us wondering whether the tidy divisions produced by modernity should continue to hold such a significant influence over how we see the world, transhumanism may well represent not a new era in the development of human expression and perception, but simply the latest iteration of our use of tools, organization, institutions, and technologies to comprehend our environment. 

In this context, transhuman and posthuman practices go from defining the edge of what makes us human (and what can be seen and understood as post- or transhuman) to actually offering a much more expansive perspective on our basic humanity. For whatever reason, I didn’t understand this, and simply overlooked the idea that trans- and posthumanism did not mark out actual transformations of human capacities, but, instead, traced a much more expansive discursive range for the traditional practices and questions at the core of the humanities (and humanism). 

Despite my incessant writing about Philip K. Dick, I somehow overlooked that this was exactly what he was  doing when he wondered whether androids dream of electric sheep. Closer to disciplinary practice, actor-network theory, the work of Tim Ingold, and scholars interested in embodied knowledge have all recognized the dense entanglement between humans and objects as central to who we are as humans. Whether modern or even digital tools make this entanglement so dense as to transform what it means to be human or whether they’ve simply made more obvious our long-standing integration with objects and others might well be one of the major projects for transhumanism moving forward. 

2. Sensory. I guess I understood, in a really basic way, that archaeology involved all of our senses, from the smell of the first, dew-covered, survey unit of the day to the sound of the trowel, the feel of ceramic surfaces (soapy to the touch!), and the view of the landscape. In fact, most of what we do as archaeologists, historically at least, is transform the range of sensory impressions that form the basis for our understanding of the landscape, vessel, or trench into another form of impressions – usually through the medium of text. 

Several of the papers in the panel noted that, first, this was a rather impoverished way to communicate archaeological work (despite the potential for excitement generated by reading a particularly compelling site report!), but also that there is tremendous potential in using technology to allow professionals and the public to engage and understand archaeology in more expansive and intensive ways. Of course, there are challenges with creating a more affective archaeology that range from the limits of digitally mediated immersive experiences to the our dependence on language (whether verbal or written) as the primary medium for disciplinary expression. Several papers, however, demonstrated that the use of language as a medium for archaeology reinforces a view of both the past and present separate from the experiences of an individual. In other words, language serves, in some ways, as a barrier between ourselves and the past and defines the limits to our own place within humanistic inquiry. The use of more and more dynamic tools which engage more senses expands our relationship to objects from the past and presents new ways not only to understand the past (as a basic form of humanistic engagement), but also to bridge the deeply modernist (and humanistic) expectation that the past and present are not and cannot be coincident in any way (pace Collingwood).   

3. Ethical. Finally, like so many of the papers that I experienced at the EAAs, I was struck by how much of our discussion revolved around ethical practices and responsibilities. Transhuman practices and interpretative paradigms, it would seem, will also stimulate the development of a new transhuman code of ethics. This involves not only something as seemingly simple as managing our expansive online identities and avatars to the limits of engaging the senses of a public whose expectations in experiencing the past derives largely from more more passive media. 

Archaeologists have long recognized that our humanity does not simply end at our body and that objects, landscapes, and buildings from the past require us to treat them with a certain kind of respect. As transhuman practices, however, embrace the more ephemeral media of digital technologies, sensory experiences, and transmedia engagements, we are pushed to understand, or at least realize, that what makes us transhuman cannot always be neatly separated from the materiality of objects, tools, or places. In fact, what makes us transhuman, it seems, is not necessarily defined by the modern divisions of past and present (or future), producing a densely-packed and expansive ethical quagmire full of competing claims for priority, access, and identity. For example, it remains to be seen how claims of national, local, or even indigenous rights to objects which have been historically so central to our ethical compass as archaeologists, will endure in a world that sees such positions as constituted by elusive and often competing strands of our own (trans)humanity.  

If the transhuman project has the potential to contribute to archaeological practice in any way, it seems like it is in the almost overwhelmingly complicate area of archaeological ethics. If our basic humanity does not end at our own views of being in the world and the present is, indeed, shared with the past and future, then the guidance of long held positions shaped by modern humanism is compromised.      

Ballard in Barcelona

On the way to and from the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona, I read two J.G. Ballard novels, The Drowned World (1962) and Hello America (1981). These works are part of Ballard’s fascination with a post-apocalyptic near future shaped by ecological catastrophes. Ballard set The Downed World in in an inundated and tropic London, largely submerged beneath rising sea levels created by the melting of the polar icecaps. Hello America describes a North American continent turned largely to desert on account of changing weather patterns formed by the Soviet damming of the Bering Sea. 

The novels are explicitly archaeology both in their setting and the structure of their plots. In fact, neither book offers much in the way of compelling dialogue or complex character development. (In fact, the characters in The Drowned World are mere sketches or exemplars of types who interact only through almost comically stilted dialogue). Their beauty and power comes from the way in which the characters interact with, perceive, and respond to their environment. This alone made them appropriate books to read on my way to an archaeological conference. 

Since I’m still processing the books (and have more Ballard to read over the next few months), I’ll offer a few observations here:

1. N-Transforms. Perhaps the most obvious aspect of the two novels is Ballard’s interest in the way in which nature shaped the man-made environment. Inundated London, overrun with massive mutated animals and insects haunting the upper stories of buildings that stand amid a silted series of lagoons. In Hello America, the Appalachian mountains and the great American desert had migrated eastward to clog the avenues and streets of an abandoned New York City with golden dunes. In both novels there’s a tension between the irresistible power of nature and the dogged persistence of the urban fabric. Improbably, two of the main characters in The Drowned World squat in penthouse apartments whose aging air conditioners and diesel powered electrical systems provide civilized shelter from the intense heat of the tropical day. The New York of Hello America is largely abandoned but for the occasional camel-riding migrants who move through the sparsely populated North America. The tropical Las Vegas, on the other hand, has been occupied and restored by an eccentric and mad genius who seeks to “make America great again.” 

The archaeologist in me feels like Ballard has an overly optimistic view of the persistence of modern building (and clothing) in the time of ecological disaster, but his view of saturated London is not far from that of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Perhaps the foundations of this saturated landscape would survive the shifting silt and surging tides of the surrounding sea, but I’m skeptical. His desiccated New York, in contrast, is more believable, even if his tropical Las Vegas seems a bit too robust.

2. Futures. Analyzing the plausibility of Ballard’s landscapes, however, misses the point. Set against the backdrop of Barcelona, a city shaped by its own series of past futures (especially in the work of the turn-of-the-century Modernisme movement which remains strongly visible in the city’s urban core, Ballard’s landscapes remind us that our world is simply a series of compromised futures from the past. As an archaeologist who thinks a good bit about how the past bustles with competing and compromised possible futures which await our critique, analysis, interpretation, and ultimately spoliation, Ballard’s novels are deeply compelling. 

In Hello America, a powerful, sociopathic madman bunkered down in Las Vegas and claimed the title of President of the United State long after the political entity had ceased to exist. He revealed to his loyal followers that his goal was “to make America great again” and filled the skies with holographic projections meant to evoke the glories of the American past. Published in 1981, this seems beyond prescient and underscored just how fragile the line is between futures imagined and the present.

The overgrown skyline of London, in contrast, seems to recycle Barcelona’s Antonio Gaudí’s fin-de-siecle fascination with nature and natural forms in his architectural masterpieces. As any number of the museums dedicated to Gaudí’s work remind visitors, his use of natural forms in his architecture sought to make clear the organic relationship between humanity and the creator. The dense tropical landscape of inundated London represented a literal expression of the city as a “concrete jungle.” The work of humanity neither succumbs to nature nor erases it, but reveals that it is part of the same process. Flooded buildings become lairs for giant iguanas and caimans, they stabilize sandbars and reefs giving purchase to vegetation, and even shelter desperate individuals in their struggle to cling to civilization. There is no hint of the Anthropocene in either of the novels largely because Ballard has determined that humanities and nature cannot be separated.

3. Time. Of course, the relationship between the past and the future is temporal, but for Ballard, time doesn’t simply march forward. In uterine environment of The Drowned World, time regresses from the catastrophic Holocene to the miasmic mists of the Triassic. Time drags the characters in the novel along with it as they become driven by long suppressed instincts awaken by their changing environment. These are, of course, communicated in haunting dreams which create an overwhelming impulse to regress, retreat, and survive. In Hello America, the trip from the deserted east coast to the tropic Las Vegas represents a voyage from the tense civilization of an exploratory expedition sent to investigate seismic and radioactive events in abandoned North America to a depraved form of egalitarianism grounded in violence and survival.  

In archaeology, we assume that we can remove more recent deposits to reveal deeper layers of the past. For Ballard, though, the past isn’t just revealed by physically uncovering or restoring the abandoned remains of human civilization, but also by moving forward through it. In Hello America, two characters scuffle in the long-abandoned Oval Office over who could claim to be President of the United States after taking time to clear debris and tidy up in an attempt to restore it to its past significance. The future, however, is not the Oval Office, but deeper in the human past exposed during the trip across the deserted continent. The same is the case for The Drowned World in which time starts to regress and the characters are drawn inexplicably toward the south and the place of human origins.     

Check this out.



Five Quick Reactions to the 2018 European Association of Archaeologists Meeting

I just got home from the 2018 European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona and was really impressed by my experience. Since, I’m still shaking off jet leg and racing to play catch up with my classes and other responsibilities, I’ll keep my comments here pretty short and impressionistic, but hopefully I’ll have to space to post something more involved later in the week.

1. So Many Panels. The EAAs were literally the opposite of the old joke that the food is bad and the portions are too small. The panels were good and there were so many of them. It was impossible to get anything more than a taste of the conference with panels stretching for four, five, or six hours, huge numbers of overlapping panels, and panels that might appeal to the same audience being held at the same time (e.g. a panel on Early Medieval transitions in the archaeology of Europe at the same time as a panel on Medieval archaeology more generally). At times people had to scoot between two panels in which they were participating or to see papers.

To be clear, this isn’t a complaint, after all there’s a limit to how a conference can organize over 1000 papers in over a 3-day event, but it’s important to recognize that any observation on the conference will only represent a small sampling of panels at the event.

2. Socially Conscious Archaeology. The theme of the conference was “Reflɘctiᴎg Futuᴙɘs”(weirdly, there are no flipped lowercase versions of Latin “n” or “r” in unicode), and, if I came away with one impression, it’s that the future of archaeology is socially engaged with pressing problems facing the world. I was particularly impressed that papers the dealt with the challenges of climate change, political pressures, and neoliberalism generally avoided the “c-word” (crisis) and preferred a sober, practical, systematic, and disciplinary approach to problems facing the future of the past. 

In fact, I sort of wanted a bit more urgency at times, but I also appreciated that so much of my desire for the urgent (OUTRAGE) demonstrates my own addiction to the excitement offered by our hyperactive media cycles and “theory of the day” approaches to problem solving and knowledge making in the humanities. What the EAAs showed me is that concepts like anarchism, decolonization, indigeneity, and public engagement have deep roots in archaeological work in the present that could produce a strong, relevant discipline for the future.     

3. Heritage, Contract, and Academic Archaeology. Maybe I’m more used to attending the ASOR or AIA annual meeting than, say, the SAAs, but I was particularly struck my the interaction between heritage and museum professionals, contract archaeologists, and academic archaeologists at the EAAs. In my panel on transhuman archaeologies, several of the heritage archaeologists deftly applied the more conceptual and academic papers to their own sites in the discussion periods. In a panel on climate change, heritage managers, contract, and academic archaeologists shared their work in documenting and preserving sites made vulnerable by coastal erosion and other climate change driven environmental concerns. 

It was really energizing and challenging as an academic archaeologist thinking in terms ontologies and epistemologies mediated largely by academic practice, to get pressed earnestly by folks involved in contract work and teaching contract archaeologists as to how what I’m saying is relevant to their work and students. This wasn’t done in a dismissive or confrontational way but as a genuinely intellectual challenge to my work and it was very much appreciated.   

4. More Bakken than Byzantine. I joked with my colleagues the week before going to the conference that every once in a while I remember that I’m a Europeanist and should attend conferences on the Continent and engage with my colleagues in Europe in a face-to-face way. What was funny though is that I found myself reflecting on my work as an Americanist far more regularly than my work in Cyprus or Greece throughout the conference. The sessions that I attended on time, climate change, and digital technologies had stronger grounding in “historical” or “world” archaeology than the work that I do when wearing my “Classical Archaeologist” hat (safety first, kids!) in Europe.

In the future, I’d like to present my work in the Bakken to the EAA audience as much to engage more thoughtfully with the social impact of my work as to grasp the role of heritage management and memory in ephemeral modern landscapes.

5. Barcelona Backdrop. Finally, Barcelona was a genuinely inspired place to hold a conference on Reflɘctiᴎg Futuᴙɘs in archaeology. The city provides a master class not only on past futures visible in the Modernisme movement as well as museums dedicated to Picasso and Miró, but also a legacy of radicalism, industrialism, post-nationalism, and neoliberalism as well. A visit to Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Família is a literal reminder of modernism as an unfinished and deeply ambiguous project which juxtaposes profound, religious truth and rebar protruding through roughly finished concrete spires. 

Just to make this point more clearly the conference itself was situated at the edge of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic where the Medieval plan of the city is best preserved and tourists and pickpockets jostle with each other down this tree-line and commodified thoroughfare. We were a short walk from Richard Meier’s well-known Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (a museum that famously opened without a collection!) whose glass and white walls reminded us of the fraught character of transparency and cosmopolitan ambivalence in the 21st century.