Logistics and Workflow in Archaeology

Over the weekend, I was in an entertaining Twitter conversation about archaeological data and publishing. The chat, as they often do on Twitter, became quite wide ranging, straying into the such charged areas as sandwich making and piano playing, but one of the more salient and thought-provoking points was that the end result of archaeological work should be proper publication. The following post is an effort to connect that conversation and view of archaeology to a paper that I’m slowly preparing for EAAs on a similar topic

On the surface, it’s hard to disagree with this. For most of my career in the field, projects that publish promptly receive the highest praise and archaeologists who do not earn (often quiet )derision. The pressure and expectation to publish is such that I’ve tended to see the entire archaeological enterprise – from planning field seasons to methods and procedures and the organization of labor and resources – as leading toward the final publication. If anything, I’ve probably tended to privilege excavation over all other outcomes of archaeological work to a fault. This reflects the standard belief that archaeological work – whether excavation or survey – is destructive and only restored through the proper publication of methods and results. While I’m never so naive as to believe that publication allows for the reconstruction of excavated level and layers, I will admit to imagining that greater transparency and rigor in documenting the excavation or survey process – both in terms of process and methods – will provide the foundations for more open-ended and nuanced interpretation.    

Most archaeologists are familiar with the general rhetoric that since archaeology is “destructive,” our work should take great pains to extract as much data as possible from the field. This “data” then becomes the foundations for analysis and interpretation and ultimately publication.

Of course, we also recognize that this rhetoric is, in a sense, facile. It’s a nice way to encourage students and volunteers to be careful in the trench or survey unit and perhaps even serves as a cautionary reminder that more, larger, deeper, trenches do indeed produce more, larger, deeper problems (i.e. mo’ trenches, mo’ problems). Archaeology is not a non-renewable resource, any more than excavation is an extractive industry. Archaeology is generative and productive and gives meaning to the flotsam of the past.

The focus on field work projects and the discipline on publication (and the logic that dictates this) serves to reinforce the social organization of archaeological practice in key ways. Final publication typically remains the responsibility of the director or directors, for example. As a result, the organization of archaeological work tends to be hierarchical with the director or directors at the top of a pyramid and specialists, supervisors, and workers forming the foundations for the ultimate expression of synthetic knowledge. In this idealized, if still representative structure, the copious “data” collected in the field by workers, organized and refined by specialists and supervisors, and then presented in reports becomes the possession of the director and foundational to analysis and interpretation. The recent and generally salutary trend toward the publication of “raw data” allows for readers to “drill down” through published analysis toward more granular bit of archaeological knowledge, closer to the trowel’s edge, and less complicated by — or at least disaggregated from — subsequent interpretation and analysis. In this way, archaeological work parallels the logic of excavation and the assembly line. Raw data enters the archaeological workflow at the trowel’s edge and refined interpretation exits in the final publication. 

The model that I have sketched out is both representative of certain currents in archaeological thought and mostly not true. We know that projects rarely work in such a streamlined way. Specialists harvest data and produce publications from archaeological artifacts. Volunteers and supervisors gain experience working on archaeological projects and this experience has direct value to their careers. Most projects have programs engaging local and global communities and recognize their responsibilities to conserve and present their work on site. In many cases, these the value generated from these outcomes trumps the value of a tidy and professional final publication. Moreover, in a few case, such as salvage projects, the final publication of archaeological analysis is not even a planned outcome; archaeological excavation is simply the performance of privilege or responsibility limited to particular groups within a community. In these cases it may be that careful excavation or survey is an expression of value in and of itself. 

In this context, then, the value of archaeological work is not limited to final publication and subject to the pressures of Taylorist efficiency, but distributed through a complex system. Workflow in this case, is not about the linearity of the assembly line but the value producing networks of logistics (especially as studied and articulated by folks like Deborah Cowen). 

Of course, articulating archaeological work through the lens of logistics is not without its own set of challenges. If the metaphor of industrial production and the assembly line promotes hierarchy, then the distributed authority and value present in a logistics network distributes agency between individuals, objects, communities, and methods. The methods of drilling down from the final product to the more “raw” initial observation dissipates across a network where the authority of identification, analysis, and interpretation relies less on a linear relationship between empirical observation and final publication, and more on the shifting relationships between individuals, objects, and technics. The ease with which these relationships can be reconfigured to produce unexpected outcomes – some of which might be undesirable on ethical grounds – marks out how an “uberfied” archaeology values expertise less and access more. The flow of data and knowledge in these logistic network involves the constant dividing and realigning of things and the sharing of responsibilities (but also the competition across the entire network for the right to expertise and the knowledge making).  


Small Town Archaeology

This weekend, Bret Weber, Eric Burin, and I conducted a little backyard archaeology. Actually, we helped Bret build a “French Drain” between his garage and his alley in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It happens that the garage is lower than the surrounding alleys meaning that water flowed down into his garage during heavy rains.

Our solution to the problem was partly inspired by my work over the past few years at the South Basilica at Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus. This church was built across a natural drainage, on the slope of a hill that runs from the city to the coastal plain. As a result, the church must have constantly endured erosional problems particularly on its south wall which stood perpendicular the the flow of water down the drainage. The presence of a road upslope from the basilica did little to slow the flow of water to the south wall of the church. I have argued that the first basilica failed, in part, because of the struggle to manage this flow of water which likely ran down the slope, across an open courtyard and down the foundation trench of the basilica. The large scale reconstruction of the building in the late 7th (or early 8th) century involved the installation of a large rubble filled pit to the south of the church which would slow the flow of water and allow it to dissipate without pooling against the vulnerable church wall. We sketched out this argument here and will publish it in greater detail this winter.

The plan for Brett’s house was to build a drain along the south, alley side, of his garage that would catch the surface run off before it entered and pooled in his garage. This involved digging a trench and a reservoir with … a mini backhoe and filling this excavated area with cobble and gravel (and maybe drain tile).

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We did not dig this trench in a stratigraphic way nor did we sieve or carefully examine the material from the trench itself. That being said, the trench did reveal some interesting stratigraphy and some interesting objects, that I’ll post here in a future post.

The upper most level of the trench, the surface, was the packed gravel the is the common road surface for most alleys in Grand Forks. This layer was approximately 2 or 3 inches. Since we excavated on Bret’s property rather than in the alleyway, it seems likely that this level was part of the spill from the alley surface carried toward Bret’s garage by the flow of water, rather than the surface itself which I would imagine to be a good bit thicker. Below that was a layer of what appears to be soil that is about 4 or 5 inches in depth. Like the gravel surface in this area, I assume that this is slope wash.

Beneath this level, however, was 3-4 inch think level of black, charred material which included chunks of coal and what appears to be charcoal. This level appeared after scraping back the top levels as a couple of small patches:     

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But as our excavation continued it became clear that this was a level that extended for the entire length of the garage, 50 ft or so. It included many small pieces of window glass, table ware, bottles, as well as other material that suggests domestic discard. It was heavy, black, and burnt. The black level is visible in the photo below.

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Bret’s four-car garage was likely built in the 1940s or 1950s, but a smaller garage, probably an carriage house, existed on its footprint as early as 1897 according to Sanborn Maps for the neighborhood. This heavy burnt and coal-laced layer appears a bit deeper on the east side of the trench than on the west, but we didn’t measure it. The garage is evidence that an alley existed behind the house as early as the 1890s when this block (the Renkells Addition) first appears on the Sanborn Maps. Bret’s house is probably a few years earlier than that, and it may be noted on the Sanborn map from 1884 as one of the “5 dwgs, 2 barns.” 

On the western side of the trench, we excavated four foot deep reservoir. This revealed a 9 inch deep layer of soil below the burnt and coal. I would assume that this level represented a flood deposition at some point in the property’s history but it was below the level of the current garage so it likely pre-dated 1950s (perhaps it can be associated with the flood of 1897). Below it was a very clear, 2 inch thick surface of sand and clay. It’s visible as a light level in the photo below.

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I’m guessing that this was an early road or alley surface in the area, but without digging more, I am not entirely sure. Our rather careless backhoe excavation of this pit made it hard to isolate any particular context; moreover, there was a metal anchor of a “guy-wire” which presumably supported a now removed utility pole in the area. It was anchored below the sand and clay surface which suggested either that the surface was compromised by the installation of the anchor or that this anchor was associated with this level. 

The burnt, black coal level is baffling to me. It looks like the debris from a coal bin or the cleaning out of a furnace. Perhaps the unburned coal, clinkers, and ash were dumped in the alley way along with other household trash and over time developed into this substantial deposit. Are there parallels for this elsewhere? 


Heritage Interpreters and Reflexivity

Sara Perry has an intriguing article in the most recent issue of Advance in Archaeological Practice 6.3 (2018), “Why Are Heritage Interpreters Voiceless at the Trowel’s Edge? A Plea for Rewriting the Archaeological Workflow.” She proposes that heritage interpreters should have a greater role in the excavation (and, I would assume, survey) process rather than being introduced to projects only after archaeologists have concluded the excavation, description, and interpretative work. For Perry, heritage interpreters are individuals responsible for communicating the results – both material and digital – of archaeological work for a wider audience, but, perhaps more importantly, these individuals have value even for archaeologists who are not particularly concerned with communicating the results of their work to a broad audience.

Perry proposes that archaeologists include specialist heritage interpreters in the archaeological workflow, on the trowel’s edge as it were. For Perry, these heritage interpreters do more than simply mediate between the disciplinary work of archaeology and the larger interests of the general public, but also serve to democratize archaeological knowledge and knowledge of the past by making it available to both specialists and non-specialists. I found her light sketch of the concept of bodystorming (a play on the idea of brainstorming) particularly provocative in that embraces the idea that being on site or in a place provides a particular and productive environment for archaeological knowledge making and for the interaction between heritage specialists and various other archaeological workers.    

A deeper and more integrated role for heritage specialists intrigued me, particularly in light of some of my work on “slow archaeology” (and my most recent effort to resolve the relationship between more democratic ways of thinking and disciplinary practices). I’ve struggled recently to resolve the tensions between disciplinarity and specialization in archaeology – and its close ties to industrial practices with their Taylorist impulses toward fragmenting knowledge into discrete, specialized bits – and an alternative tradition of archaeological practice grounded in craft. Perry appears to advocate for a hybridized practice in archaeology that recognizes, on the one hand, the role of specialists (including heritage specialists) whose knowledge and efforts are coordinated through the industrial concept of “workflow.” On the other hand, she also understands the potential for this workflow to be recursive and non-linear and for specialists to share their specialized knowledge across the entire process of archaeological knowledge making. There is this contradiction between specialized knowledge and the linearity implicit in workflow and the recursive practices that allow all specialists to move from the trowels edge to the general public mediated by individuals, technical skills, and shared knowledge. Of course, Hodder’s concept of reflexivity at all stages of archaeological work already assumed that the concepts like workflow and disciplinary specialists were no more “siloed” than the boxes of the Harris Matrix (and its similarity to [work]flow charts) represented empirically equivalent past events. In other words, while Perry’s inclusion of heritage specialists at the trowel’s edge is unique, the idea that archaeological workflows are reflexive and recursive is well known in archaeological circles, at least in theory.

The real question in my mind remains: will the specialization of archaeological skills and knowledge within the existing structure of archaeological practices lead to more democratized knowledge of the past within the discipline of archaeology?

My work has become hung up on the tension between specialized knowledge and democratic knowledge is at the core of archaeological practice. On the one hand, industrial models of knowledge making insist that any almost any individual from the elite practitioners to the volunteer field walker can play a small part in archaeological knowledge making. In fact, certain aspects of mass democracy and industrialization have followed in lockstep. It is hardly surprising that an industrial model for producing educated students is the backbone for the American model of university education and recent efforts to streamline this further have involved reducing the reliance on disciplinary specialists even further through the use of adjuncts (who do not lack specialized skills, but whose role in the modern university is less dependent on their specialized knowledge and more dependent on qualifications established by the educational assembly line), various automated forms of content delivery, and other 21st century techniques. In other words, concepts like “workflow” tend toward the deskilling of specialists. Heritage specialists whose role becomes defined by archaeological workflow run the risk of deskilling and will have to work counter to the industrial logic implicit in these ways of seeing archaeological work.

On the other hand, I tend to advocated a muddled view of for an alternative archaeology that wavers between appeals to a model of benign anarchism and that of pre-industrial craft production. The latter offers a view of the discipline that tends toward hierarchy with individuals who possess superior abilities achieving the status of master and others, through their aspirations, being apprentices and journeymen (or whatever the gender neutral version of that term is). The former, however, offers a more radically democratic view of the discipline that levels the ground between specialists and non-specialists by de-privileging the voice of specialization. The risk is, it would seem to me, that this radically democratic view of archaeological anarchism removes the privilege of authorizing a particular view of the past from archaeologists or historians, but runs the risk of turning the power of the past over to the strongest voice or the majority.

This thinking strays a good bit from Perry’s intriguing article, but I think her work continues to poke and prod at the idea of archaeological specialization, archaeological practice, and the nature of archaeological knowledge. Her argument that heritage specialists should be present at the trowel’s edge is important and consistent with my view that archaeological knowledge is grounded in an understanding of practice and place. At the same time, her hybrid view of archaeological workflow offers a compelling challenge to how we think about the organization of archaeological practices both on the ground – in a practical sense – but also as they relate to archaeological knowledge making. To my mind, the latter issue is the most pressing as it existing at the fraught intersection of archaeological methods, process, specialization, expertise, community, and public and scholarly communications.   

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: A Completed Draft

I’ve spent the last three months toiling over a paper that I’m scheduled to give at the European Archaeological Association meetings in September. I’ve posted parts of it here on the blog and gotten feedback from various folks. My panel is supposed to pre-circulate their papers today, and I do have a draft, but it’s pretty rough around the edges.

But since I’m pre-circulating it anyway, I thought I might as well post it here on my blog too. You can download it here, or go and mark it up using Hypothes.is here

The paper is for a panel on transhumanism, which I probably should have focused on more fully. Instead, I conflated transhumanism with a watered down version of Donna Harraway’s idea of the cyborg and reflected very broadly on the role of technology in shaping how we produce archaeological knowledge. 

The paper ended up being a bit more conservative than I would have liked, but that is probably true both to the “slow” paradigm that I’ve embraced for archaeology and, more obviously, the work of Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, which tend toward the explicitly un-progressive. That being said, I think there is a space for reflecting on how epistemologies, ontologies, methodologies, and the organization of disciplinary practice interact, and my paper parallels, perhaps in a not too distant way, some of the recent work being done to reconsider the value of antiquarian practices. Some of these scholars have seen antiquarianism as an avenue for understanding un-modern (and anti-modern) ways of producing archaeological knowledge that are, at least partly, free from the political and social burdens of modernity and colonialism

That being said, I don’t think that I get everything right. For example, I do see the recent interest in shifting the dominant metaphor in archaeology from excavation and revealing to surface survey and assemblage building as a way to integrate a wider and more diverse range of voices into process of archaeological knowledge making. In fact, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s and Olivier Laurent’s works do just that by showing how distinctive views of time, narrative building, values, and relationships contribute to place-making practices at the local level that operate outside disciplinary methods and arguments. At the same time, I see in the kind of assemblage building the potential for greater fragmentation in disciplinary practices which echoes the way in which digital tools create networks of independent devices linked by data broken into discrete fragments. 

In any event, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t get this paper all right, but as always I’ll appreciate any comments that you’re willing to offer. 



Archaeogaming: The Book

Over the weekend I read Andrew Reinhard’s new, concise introduction to archaeogaming, titled Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games (2018). I have had the good fortune of chatting with him a fair bit about archaeogaming in the field at the Alamogordo Atari Excavation, on my Caraheard podcast, and over email correspondence and conversations over the past five years or so. The concept has always intrigued me as an valuable approach to the archaeology of “Late Capitalism” or “Post Modernity” and a series of methods and practices worth developing if archaeologists continue to take seriously both their expansive view of materiality and their particular claim to being students of culture.


He defines archaeogaming in the title of his book as the archaeology in and of video games and carves out a space for it between the burgeoning and related fields of game studies and media archaeology. The book embraces its place between media archaeology and game studies by bouncing merrily between academic diction and more accessible prose which allows it to leverage the precise language of, say, Heidegger’s definition of “dwelling” with the campy, acronym-heavy, and breeze world of gaming lingo. Reinhard’s willingness to move between the densely philosophical, the methodological, and the colloquial would make this book a nice option for an introductory archaeology class where students learn about theory, methods, procedures, and techniques, but less frequently have opportunities to put these ideas into practice. An archaeogaming module, that encourages them to excavate, survey, or otherwise document a video game as a cultural artifact would be a nice complement or final project in an archaeology class. Reinhard’s book provides both the student and the scholar a way to think about what this kind of work will look like.

As is my usual practice, I haven’t the discipline or inclination to do a proper review. Instead, I offer three observations.

1. Gamification of Archaeology. I’m not a gamer and don’t own any video games, but one of the first things that struck me about this book is how much video gaming has shaped my engagement with “dirt and sherd” archaeology. From the graphic-user interfaces of software to the longterm interest in simulations, 3D modeling, and immersive environments, digital practices in archaeology drink from the same pool of practices and trends as does gaming culture. On a superficial level, the evident complexity of the kinds of video games at the center of Reinhard’s analysis make it clear that these games share with software used by archaeologists – particularly GIS and 3D imaging software – the need to allow for a wide range of mapping, marking, and measuring functions. In fact, a current publication project that I’m working on with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and Open Context has spent a good bit of time discussing how to measure a 3D-scan of an object across scales through an online interface. This past summer, I spent a good bit of time in the Western Argolid producing drone images of the landscape that will allow for higher resolution mapping of significant places in our survey area. The ability to zoom in from a satellite image to our drone photography or “fly” across the landscape to understand the spatial or visual relationship between two places at different scales (i.e. a 3 m cliff might be smoothed by a 5 m resolution digital elevation model into a steep, but passable slope, but in a higher resolution landscape model become a barrier to movement). While these these kinds of spatial analysis on the micro or macro scale are concerns of archaeologists, they have parallels with game play where issues of legibility across scales in immersive digital environments have particular consequence. So there is a resonance on a broad level between gamers and archaeologists who both share an interest in building worlds with an attention to detail across scale, a kind of cultural legibility, and a compelling vividness.

This isn’t limited, of course, to analytical work in the lab or office. Flying a drone involves a game like interface which occupies the pilots attention far more than the actual drone itself. Documenting walls or marking up photographs on a tablet involves looking at the tablet, manipulating graphics, and making aesthetic and procedural decisions in an interface that simulates work on paper, but also goes beyond it. These interfaces mediate between “meatspace” (to use Reinhard’s term) and “gamespace” (or whatever we might call it) that extends from our GIS and spatial analysis software to the interfaces on our tablets and drone consoles. 

2. Stratigraphy and Surface Survey in Virtual Worlds. One of the things that Reinhard explores is the relationship between games, game spaces, and archaeological knowledge. He describes the work he did on the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS) which is a survey project focused on the procedural worlds created in the game No Man’s SkyYou can read more about that survey project here

What interested me the most is that survey archaeology – that is the study of assemblages of objects on the surface – was the chosen method for exploring the landscapes of video games. Not only is it useful for documenting the surfaces presented by game developers within games, but it also allows the archaeologist to create assemblages that extend from the world in the game to “meatspace” where digital recording methods, academic literature, conversations with colleagues, and knowledge about the game’s development trajectory and versioning as well as critical responses to the game itself come into play. As Reinhard states, archaeogaming doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the game itself, but extends to the world of the gamer, the interface, and the materiality of the game experience. The gaming experience is a surface that extends out widely in a network of entangled relationships.

At the same time, Reinhard pokes a bit at the idea of stratigraphy of video games. In some cases, stratigraphic relationships become visible in the history of the games themselves with keen observations possible by carefully reading the deposition of objects and features in the game landscapes. Stratigraphy is evident in aspects of games that evoke earlier version of the same game or earlier iterations of certain game types like quests or problem games. Stratigraphy is evident also in the way in which the player interfaces with the game or expects certain functions to work that build upon long standing conventions or gaming practices. It might even be possible to detect certain common game “engines” at play in games the provide, say, realistic gravity or other physical aspect of game place and allow players to anticipate how their avatar or character will respond to input. These basic (like in a foundational sense) features of game play can represent earlier deposits or moments of development in the game or in the gaming concept against which variation and change can be measured. Since strata are always defined by methods and practices, the challenge facing archaeogaming is defining these levels and their relationship to later depositional events. Reinhard appears well on his way to setting out some common methods for recognizing these stratigraphic levels. 

In other cases, stratigraphy involves digging down below the level of the graphic interface and into the murky world of code. Reinhard does not deal much with code in his book, but it clearly lurks right below the surface (heh, heh). Excavating code for the earliest deposition processes requires both a deep familiarity with programing practice and access to the codebase, which is usually zealously guarded by gaming companies. My guess is that parts of these games rely on code that is decades old and recycled – like ancient spolia – for different purposes in a wide range of games. Excavating the code of games would appear to be the next frontier for archaeogaming and to parallel nicely the recent interest in excavating archaeological practices. 

3. The Edges of Archaeogaming. There were a few places in the book where I thought that the edges of archaeogaming revealed its potential moving forward. For example, it is clear that archaeologists in video games, like in other forms of popular media, rarely follow our professional code of ethics. Laura Croft, literally raids tombs. Indiana Jones, punches (admittedly bad) people and steals their excavated finds and destroys their research projects. In other instances, some of the games themselves tend to present material culture as an analogy for “race” promoting a kind of narrow and problematic view of culture. These practices while problematic ethically for the practicing archaeologist can be suspended for the purposes of game play, just as players of the famous Grand Theft Auto game can run over families or shoot at cops. While we know that the grossest kinds of unethical (or illegal) behaviors in most video games are at best a kind of escapism and at worst a manifestation of the repressed desires to challenge authority, to destroy society, or to die, our understanding of the ethical limits within these virtual worlds are unclear. For example, there are some kinds of unethical behavior that are simply not acceptable in video games, but where these lines are drawn remains a topic for debate.   

I was also curious about whether archaeogaming ideas could be applied to so-called virtual worlds like Second Life or simulations like Sim City. For the former, users shaped landscapes and built structures which persisted when they were abandoned to leave strange ghost cities and worlds whose purposes were unclear. Games like Sim City have coded formation processes built into game play with neighborhoods falling into slums when resources or access are restricted. The archaeological thinking behind this simulation is that changes in resources not only lead to more elaborate buildings, but also their deterioration over time. Games like the well-regarded Civilization series similarly rely on archaeological assumptions to plot the development of groups and the competition for resources over time. It seems like these games embrace the relationship between disciplinary archaeology and “game space” in a way that could benefit both gaming and archaeology. 

None of what I’ve said in this critique is meant to be a criticism of the book or archaeogaming. In fact, I think this book does a lovely job opening up archaeogaming in a practical and intellectual way to scholars. I’m looking forward to Reinhard’s PhD Dissertation at the University of York to see where these ideas go in the future. Check out his ongoing work in this area at his Archaeogaming website.




Lakka Skoutara and Abandonment: PrePrint with Pictures

Over almost 15 years, David Pettegrew and I have been revisiting the rural settlement of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and documenting the changes. At first, our interest was to document site formation processes at the site and observe how abandoned buildings and houses fell down over time.

Figure 8 house7 image20 2009 d263338a90

After only one or two visits, however, we discovered that these houses were not simply left alone to collapse in the Greek countryside, but continued to be centers of a wide range of rural activities. For example, several of the houses lost their ceramic tile roofs during over the past 15 years, and others have seen regular maintenance and, in at least one case, expansion. As a result, our research shifted from a rather abstract (and naive) view of this settlement as a case study for site formation to a more dynamic and complex project designed to document the material engagement with the Greek countryside over a period of 15 years.

While it goes without saying that the history of rural Greece continues to attract attention from anthropologists, historians, geographers, as well as local antiquarians, there has been relatively less formal and systematic archaeological study of 20th century rural sites. Our work at Lakka Skoutara is not entirely unique, but it makes a useful contribution to the small number 20th century rural sites that have received systematic and sustained archaeological study in Greece.

You can download a draft of our paper here. Or read about our most recent visit to the site here.

Archaeological Context

Every now and then an article catches in my head for some reason. Recently it’s been a JMA article by Donald Haggis who was wrote in response to a conversation between Robin Osborne and James Whitley on the nature and meaning of archaeological context. Osborne proposed that collections in the museums, despite the tendency to be decontextualized by archaeological standards, still have the potential to contribute in significant ways to the discipline whereas archaeologists often overstate the value of archaeological contexts to contribute to conversations relevant to ancient historians or art historians. Whitley, in response, reasserted the value and importance of archaeological contexts for establishing chronology, function, and geographic or spatial provenience. Haggis, for his contribution to the conversation, noted that the field of Classical archaeology does more than simply provide context for objects that art historians, historians, and Classicists study, but also has its own set of research questions and ways of viewing objects, sites, and landscapes that are independent from the wider field of Classics, but nevertheless offer important and complicated ways of thinking about the past.

What made this article stick in my head was not so much Haggis’s claim that Classical archaeology has a kind of disciplinary significance outside of producing the context for objects as secure data points for arguments made in different disciplines, but his larger recognition that the idea of archaeological context requires additional scrutiny. In fact, I’d argue that the entire concept of archaeological context is perhaps sufficiently problematic that archaeologists should either define the term very narrowly or rejected it entirely. Here, I suppose, I’m leaning on Michel Foucault’s larger critique of context in Archaeologies of Knowledge (p. 109-112).  

In practical terms, I remember wandering through a storeroom in the Mediterranean and seeing a tray of objects that were labeled “No Context.” One of the objects had a tag with the word “surface” written on it and a GPS coordinate. This struck me as a fair narrow definition of the term “context.” At first, I imagined it as shorthand for “stratigraphic context,” but, of course, the surface is a stratigraphic level. Perhaps the tag writer meant “excavated context” which might be more true except that many (although not all) projects do excavate the surface as part of the plow zone, but this is a methodological decision or at very least a procedural one. It may be that the object did not appear as part of the surface or plow zone of a particular trench therefore it didn’t derive from a context defined by excavation. Perhaps the surface of the site was removed by a bulldozer prior to excavation similarly excising the plow zone from the contexts defined by conventional excavation methods. My point here isn’t so much to criticize a lack of precision in how a project defined context, but to suggest that the very idea of archaeological context is ambiguous. In fact, I’m as guilty as anyone when I casually refer to artifacts from intensive pedestrian survey as lacking stratigraphic context, which is technically untrue, beyond the idea that a single stratum as little meaning if not understood in relation to another stratum or strata whether the stratum is on the surface or subsurface. Strata and stratigraphy is relative.

Haggis, of course, recognizes this. Even a stratigraphically excavated site, individual strata only derive their context for a particular method. As careful work in micromorphology and microstratrigraphy has demonstrated, archaeologists regularly aggregate depositional events that more fine-grained methods can pull apart. Generally speaking our willingness to define stratigraphic levels derives from out particular research questions. The leveling fill for an early Christian basilica, for example, that offers a terminus post quem for the reconstruction of a particular district in the city. Microstratigraphy might be able to reveal individual dumps of material to form the fill, but this probably would not contribute much to how we date the entire fill. In another context, the documentation of microstratigraphy in the dromos of a tholos tomb could reveal how many times the tomb was opened and resealed over its life and this would speak to the ritual life of the tomb. In other words even stratigraphic and depositional contexts are simply extensions of our methods and since the methods for identifying microstratigraphy are sufficiently specialized and different from typical excavation methods, we might argue that these contexts are methodological.

Methods and methodological contexts, however, provide only one part of our definition of an “archaeological context.” Anyone who has stumbled upon a looting hole and noticed tidy scarps and sifted soil, realizes that looters can follow good field practices, if not methods. Moreover, we know that some stratigraphic excavations cannot provide archaeological contexts by dint of their occurring without proper permits or in areas like occupied Northern Cyprus where most excavation, however proper in terms of practice, is illegal for geopolitical reasons.   

All this is to say that Haggis is right in recognizing that Classical archaeology frames its own questions and adopts methods and practices according to those questions. I might, however, take his argument a bit further to suggest that it’s not just the questions posed by Classical archaeology that defines “archaeological context,” but archaeological contexts are also formed by the politics, methods, and objects themselves. At some point, it becomes unhelpful to talk about archaeological context or even contexts as something at all. The term “archaeological context” might be the kind of Latourian “black box” that serves to obscure more than it reveals and to generalize a dense and complex range of tensions and priorities in a universal way. 

It might be more helpful, instead, to talk about how assemblages produce meaning. For the archaeologist, the assemblage extends beyond groups of artifacts to include the methods, field practices, strata, and the questions that an archaeologist or ancient historian asks of the field work. After all, the questions that we ask as Classical or Mediterranean archaeologists do not alone define our work. We are as indebted to historical practices, institutional bureaucracies, and even a commitment to a work in an open ended way so that the results of our field work might be useful to others who may bring different questions to our “legacy data.” More importantly, archaeology has increasingly recognized the ethical aspects of our work that extend from how we listen to and respect indigenous archaeological traditions to how we treat our colleagues and students during field work, how we present our findings, and how we disseminate our work through publications. 

The benefit to the discipline of archaeology of dissolving the concept of “archaeological context” is that it opens a more expansive space to discuss, define, and debate what we do and how we establish the discursive limits to our practices and discipline. In the end, this might be the most effective way to resolve the issue that Haggis reiterates in his conclusion: “we do not really think very much about method and practice, and we rarely address (critically or otherwise) the study of archaeological context as an endeavor with rather different goals, perspectives, applications, and indeed very different sorts of data, than those commonly employed by our colleagues in classics, ancient history, and art history.” 


Boeotia Project, Volume 2: The City of Thespiai

Over the last few weeks I’ve been snacking on John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass’s Boeotia Project, Volume II: The City of Thespiai: Survey at a Complex Urban Site (2017). It’s a big book that is both impressively synthetic and filled with many distinct observations on the distribution of ceramics and survey methodology. The book focuses on work done in the 1980s at the long-lived urban site of Thespiai. Like my own project at Koutsopetria on Cyprus, the intensive pedestrian survey was not designed to locate the site (or small ex-ubran sites in the countryside), but to document the assemblage, distribution, and extent of material at a “complex urban site.”  The distributional analysis of the ceramic material from the survey interested me the most, although the book also brings together architectural fragments, epigraphy, Ottoman administrative documents, and ceramic analyses into a series of synthetic histories of the city.

I might venture a more thorough review of the book after I work my way through it all, but, for now, I wanted to record a few observations on chapter 3 which unpacks the distribution of ceramic material across this large urban site. There are five things that piqued my interest in these chapters.

First, the intensive survey around Thespiai was done in the mid-1980s meaning that this project drew upon a kind of legacy data. The authors were particularly up front about the challenges of these datasets, the occasional irregularity of their survey work, and the adaptation of their methods over time. It was a nice reminder that for all the methodological rigor associated with survey and for all the efforts projects make to demonstrate the systematic character of their artifact collection, intensive survey projects both adapt over the course of projects and in response to the landscape. Bintliff and his colleagues occasionally used irregularities to their advantage, such as when they compared an assemblage collected from units that were accidentally resurveyed with that from the original collection to demonstrate that larger assemblages tend to be more diverse. 

Second, for many of the survey units Bintliff’s team conducted both standard intensive survey collection at 15 m spacing over units that were around 3000 sq m, as well as more intensive samples over 300 sq m from the same 3000 sq m units. Comparing the assemblages produced by these two different methods demonstrated that the more intensive collection samples did not necessarily produce more chronological information than the less intensive transect walking. This confirms some of the experiments that we ran at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project and the preliminary analysis of our data from the Western Argolid Regional Project

It was a bit more striking that the density data from both collection methods produced more or less comparable. In my experience, more intensive sampling tended to produce much higher density per hectare than counting visible artifacts while walking units at 10 to 15 m intervals. The similarity in density counts and the distribution produced through the different methods is a remarkable sign that their less intensive methods were appropriately calibrated for the nature of the surface assemblage at this large urban site.

Third, over the last decade, I’ve been fairly concerned with issues of surface visibility in intensive survey. In fact, I’ve tended to think about visibility as having a particularly significant impact on the chronological and functional character of artifact assemblages. I’ve made two arguments for the role of visibility. First, as visibility decreases, assemblages tend to become less chronologically diverse and the most common artifacts, which tend to only date to broad periods, to dominate these assemblage. Second, low visibility units with particularly diverse assemblages likely represent windows into higher artifact density surfaces obscured by vegetation. 

Because I’m not particularly interested in overall artifact densities, per se, I’ve been reluctant to correct artifact densities for visibility and, instead, focused on identifying units with anomalous densities or diversity for their surface visibility.  Even if I was interested in overall artifact densities, however, I’d probably want whatever correction is applied to them unpacked more explicitly than the authors of this book provide. More than that, Bintliff’s long term interest in hidden landscapes might recommend greater attention to visibility as a key factor in obscuring and revealing periods that tend to be difficult to see on the surface.

Fourth, I was quite intrigued by the authors’ argument that earlier periods might be obscured by later period overburdens across the survey area. On the one hand, this is certainly the case particularly over the span of millennia, with evidence for prehistoric periods hidden, destroyed, or otherwise compromised by later eras that also tend to produce more materially visible marks on the landscape. I do wonder, on the other hand, whether the authors overstated their case a bit for the potential of various historical periods to obscure their earlier historical predecessors. The wide range of natural and human formation processes that shape contemporary landscapes ranging from cut terraces to erosional features, scars associated with historical (and contemporary) excavations, and the local movement of soil to level fields contribute significantly to the complexity to surface assemblages. While I don’t doubt that the area of the ancient city of Thespiai is relatively stable (or at least well understood by the surveyors), I suspect that the relationship between the plow zone and subsurface material is too tricky to make arguments for later overburdens in anything but very well understood situations.

In fact, one thing that I’ve come to appreciate from our soon-to-be-published work at Koutsopetria is how much earlier material finds its way into later buildings. For example, the annex room from the Early Christian basilica at Koutsopetria clearly stands atop a clear earlier Roman horizon, but the walls, the floor and roof collapse, and the erosional overburden across the Late Roman building featured a large quantity of Hellenistic and even earlier Iron Age (and Cypro-Classical) material. We have our doubts whether the area around the Early Christian basilica saw activity in the Iron Age or even Hellenistic period, but the material present in the Late Roman building ensured that the Hellenistic and Classical periods, nevertheless, appeared in the excavation. This led us to suspect that some of the earlier period scatter across the Koutsopetria plain, might well reflect material that entered the plow zone from later buildings. Needless to say, the famous example of the Pyrgouthi tower where a predominantly Hellenistic scatter obscured a significant phase of 7th century re-occuptation springs to mind as well. 

The significance for understanding the the relationship between material from various periods also underscores the complexity of defining the extent of the site at any period as well as interpreting the presence of features like cemeteries or ritual activities in the landscape (much less estimating population size based on the size of a site!)  

Finally, one thing that I really appreciate from this work is the authors’ willingness to bring to the fore the various archaeologists responsible for producing the assemblages from the site. This extends from the charming story of the “Mad Dogs of Thespaia” to various roles played by two generations of ceramicists who read the material in the 1980s and 1990s and re-examined it in preparation for the book. Intensive survey has, at times, embraced a kind of impersonal style that places quantitative analyses and well presented maps before the work of the individual survey teams and ceramicists who produced the data. On the one hand, this makes sense as the rigorous collection of information from the field and the ceramic assemblages produces datasets designed for quantitative analysis. On the other hand, anyone who has worked on a survey knows that time in the Greek countryside, with sherds, and in the company of other archaeologists can shape the results of a project in ways that the tidy analysis often obscures.

As I work my way through the volume, I’ll likely blog more on this book over the coming weeks. It’s an important and expansive book, so stay tuned!

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care (Part 2)

Over the last three months I’ve been fretting and toiling about a paper that I’m writing for European Archaeological Association meeting in September that is due to pre-circulate on August 1. I promised myself to have a completed draft done by July 15, not so much to fulfill some vague Germanic need to have things done on time, but because I was struggling to wrangle my ideas into something that made sense. I posted the first part of the paper on Monday and here’s the second section. It’s rough and a bit raw (and maybe bad). As always I appreciate both constructive and destructive criticism.

As the organizers of this panel know well, transhumanism offers a way to consider the interplay between technology and performance in society (e.g. Haraway 1984) and, more specifically, in archaeology. It also offers a vague roadmap to anticipate the social and disciplinary implications of new approaches to producing archaeological knowledge. Indeed, for most of the later 20th century archaeologists have embraced methodology and seen knowledge making as an explicit relationship between particular techniques, tools, and situations. In this way, archaeological work does not end at the limits of our bodies, but extends reciprocally through technology, techniques, and social organization to create the hybrid space of archaeological knowledge making.

I like to think of the resulting archaeology is far more superficial in the sense that Rodney Harrison has suggested with the dominant metaphor of excavation giving way to the production of surface assemblages consisting of people, objects, tools, and techniques. For authors like Shannon Lee Dawdy, the awareness of how assemblages produce meaningful pasts involves more than simply dutiful documentation and analysis of archaeological work but also recognizing the relationship between field work, local knowledge, ritual activities, and various pre- and anti-modern ways of locating, narrating, and producing social value for artifacts (Dawdy 2016). For Olivier (2012), this speaks to the chaotic nature of time and memory from which the discipline of archaeological seeks to produce an order, but not the only order possible, useful, or meaningful. In this context, the rather linear practice of stratigraphic excavation with its institutional, disciplinary, and performative underpinnings gives way to the raucous and uneven performance of punk rock music which often eschews expertise, barriers to access, and specialized knowledge. There’s an immediacy to it and an explicitly improvised character to even recorded punk music. To use Illich’s terms, the interaction between tools, performance, methods, and individuals is convivial.

My arguments for a slow archaeology shares an interest in conviviality when it seeks to privilege unstructured or less structured engagements with the countryside, embodied field practices like illustrating and note taking by hand, and avoiding the fragmentation of archaeological information into smaller bit of “data.” On the one hand, I remain optimistic that such views of the use of digital technology in archaeology are likely to be superseded as scholars continue to unpack the complex relationship between archaeologists and technology. The transhuman archaeologist is much more likely to recognize the interplay between ourselves and the various digital ”cognitive artifacts” that expand our ability to think about, recognize, or produce archaeological objects (Huggett 2017).

On the other hand, a transhuman archaeology will also transform the social organization of archaeological practice. Digital technology, for example, whatever its integrative potential, relies, in part, on the industrialist and Taylorist approach of dividing complex tasks into rather more simple ones as a step toward aggregating the results of these tasks into completed products. While the linearity of the assembly line may appear outmoded in our digitally networked world, its efficiency speaks to a common goal of fragmenting work as a way to mitigate differences in experience and expertise. Various crowd-sourced research projects (e.g. Sarah Parcak work) have shown how digital tools have produced non-linear approaches to complex archaeological problems. Whatever the value of this kind of archaeological work it is hard not to see it as a kind of digital approach to industrial logic, and as a result, and bringing a distinct form of deskilling (or at very least “reskilling“) to certain kinds of archaeological work.

I recognize that by following the logic of Ellul, Illich, and other anti-modernists, I am predisposed my to worry about the use of remote, structured or simplified recording digital recording interfaces, the ease of point-and-click data manipulation, or the use of software to synthesize unstructured data such as generated by digital photography into 3D structure-from-motion images (Morgan and Knight 2017). I do, however, think that the adoption of digital tools and the understanding of digital technologies at both a conceptual and applied level is not merely exchanging one set of skills for another (pace Roosevelt et al.), but also simplifying (and deskilling) certain elements of archaeological work.

Shifting from an assembly line model to a digital model that allows for more dynamic (and remote) access to data production and analysis will transform the organization of archaeological work. The coincidence between an approach to archaeological grounded in assemblages of individuals, objects, places, and pasts, and the democratizing character of digital practices demonstrates allows us to accommodate, but also replace certain kinds of specialists with a computer algorithm or commercial software. The incorporation of algorithms, software, digital tools, and new techniques into archaeological practice brings with them their distinctive logic of practice to field work and analysis.

Jacques Ellul’s work stressed how efficiency and specialization are bound up in the fuzzy concept of technique which he locates as the driving force behind human decision making. For Ellul, technique is modern desire to work efficiently as an end unto itself. Archaeology, on the one hand, as a discipline that emerged, at least in part, alongside industrial practices has always privileged efficiency in organization, documentation, and work. This is not to say that individual archaeologists only and always privileged efficiency, of course, but the very concept of specialization in approaches, methods, procedures, and experiences represents a kind of technique that has played a historically significant role in the production of archaeological knowledge. Practices that marked an individuals specialized skills from carefully maintained notebooks of the trench supervisor or the intricate illustrations of the architect today represent some of the very fields that digital practices propose to refine and improve.

As people like Eric Kansa have noted, the impulse to use digital tools to produce more efficient data collection, as an example, anticipated the recent fascination with “Big Data” well in advance of the consistent demonstration of its results (Kansa 2017; Bevan 20xx). This is not to say that big data will not lead to important breakthroughs in our field, but to suggest that the efficiency possible in digital data collection, analysis, and dissemination, has outpaced our ability to draw significant conclusions. As Roosevelt and others cleverly quipped, digitization is an alternative to destruction in the context of field practices, but this presupposes that this data can produce meaningful interpretation.

Survey Archaeology and Dogs

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been working my way through some recent scholarly on survey archaeology as we begin to analyze the data from the Western Argolid Regional Project. Hopefully I’ll have time to blog more at length about articles like, Marica Cassis, Owen Doonan, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, “Evaluating Archaeological Evidence for Demographics, Abandonment, and Recovery in Late Antique and Byzantine Anatolia,” Human Ecology 46 (2018): 381–398. Cassis et al. bring together the analysis of a range of survey projects in Anatolia to demonstrate a diverse array of changes in settlement across the region during the seventh and eighth centuries. The authors argue for regional variation but also connections to climate change, the occupation of marginal lands, and varying degrees of regional engagement in larger economic and political systems. 

I’ve also started to read carefully, John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass, Boeotia Project, Volume II: The City of Thespiai: Survey at a Complex Urban Site. Cambridge 2017. While there is much to unpack in this volume, I genuinely appreciated the anecdote on p. 31. 

“One recollection, shared between the notebooks and our own vivid memories, is that of the ‘Hounds of Thespiai’. In those days, when dogs in rural Greece were almost never treated as pets, allowed in the home or kept on a leash (in contrast to the gilded pooches on parade in Athens’ Kolonaki Square), their main function in the countryside was to guard houses and sheep-folds. Apart from the violent barking which was the first form of custodianship, few ventured physical aggression unless one really intended to break into private property. To these rules of behaviour, comforting for the nervous student on field survey in Greece for the first time, the Mad Dogs of Thespies were a permanent exception. Once the field teams were in place in the lowlands of the ancient city each morning, only a few minutes of suspicious calm would elapse before a distant belling from the top of Thespies village hill above us would announce our detection by the Mad Dogs. They would immediately pour down the hill-side towards us at a great pace, then charge at the two teams. There never seemed to be an intention to stop short and make fierce gestures: rather, one got the repeated impression that large pieces of student were believed to be on offer to the under-fed mongrels. Only a Classical education offered daily security against the presumed threat: forming a circle, the field teams would present their steel-tipped sets of 2-m ranging poles to their would-be attackers. Wonderfully, after ten minutes of the ensuing stand-off, the Mad Dogs would slink off, but one could never be sure that an unexpected reprise might not occur later in the morning.”