Writing Wednesday: Some Fragments

I’m juggling a few projects lately and that always keeps me on my toes and excited to get to work in the morning.

Right now, I’m working with Rachael Kiddey to edit the inaugural volume in the CHAT book series. It’s a collection of papers from festivalCHAT which was an online conference held in 2020. I’m also finishing a book review that’s probably due October 1, and most importantly, I’m finishing revisions on a paper that I wrote about the “Bakken Babylon” for a special section to appear next year in Near Eastern Archaeology on the archaeology of climate change.

One of the critiques of this paper was that it was a bit hard to understand what I was trying to do. While I saw this as a feature, the editors of the special section suggested that it might be understood as a “bug” by the audience of NEA who might not expect a contribution that blurs the line between fiction and criticism. This was a fair observation and I decided to add an introductory paragraph that sets up a bit more explicitly what I was trying to do.

Here’s the new introduction and this introduction is followed by a link to the paper as it now stands.

This article is an experiment. Its origins are in my decades of work in the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota and my nearly two decades of field work in the Near East, primarily Cyprus, although this work is more clearly influenced by the former than the latter. During our time writing and thinking about the Bakken, we recognized similarities between the materiality of extractive industries in North Dakota and in the contemporary Near East. In some cases, the same companies operated in both places, such as Haliburton and Schlumberger. In other cases, the same individuals worked in both places and recognized the similarities in modular force housing and daily routines. The similarities between extractive industries in both places paralleled the global reach of contemporary climate change. This understanding encouraged us to consider whether modern geographies that support the borders of nation states, our understanding of regional practices and the discipline of archaeology itself impaired our ability to imagine climate change on a global scale. Archaeologists have already contributed to multi-site approaches designed to trace the impact of climate change in different regional contexts. While comparative and multi-site approaches to provide windows into the history and impact of climate change, they often remained linked to regional narratives and economic and demographic networks informed by traditional political geographies.

This paper will explore the potential for more “planetary” approaches to understanding climate change which complicate and obscure modern geography. In fact, this article will embrace certain aspects of the fictional universe imagined in Reza Negarestani’s philosophical novel, Cyclonopedia, which follow the trail of an Iranian archaeologist, Dr. Hamid Parsani, who located oil at the center of a radical cosmology with roots in Near Eastern antiquity. This wildly speculative and painfully obscure text provides a kind of sandbox to where I combine some of my experience in the Bakken with a planetary view of Babylon informed as much by Bruno Latour and Dipesh Chakrabarty view of planet approaches to climate change as the recent fictional works in speculative realism. The goal of this article is less a clear method or even a roughly defined approach and more of an inducement to more radical ways of thinking necessary to understand the industrial landscapes of the contemporary Bakken and Near East within the planetary history and consequences of the looming climate catastrophe.

Here’s a link to Bakken Babylon, part 1 and Bakken Babylon, part 2.

More on Isthmia Data

My post today is mostly for data nerds (or want-to-be data nerds, in my case). For the last two months, I’ve been messing around with some databases from the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia in Greece. I have any number of goals with doing this and most of them loosely coalesce around “figuring out how good this data is and whether I can do anything with it as it is now.” Recently, though, I’ve gotten tired of waiting to see if the data is good enough and started to tinker with it a bit as a way to see if I could build some hypothesis and find problems with the data through testing it. 

The biggest challenge with this data is folding together five different datasets and getting them to talk to one another.The first data set is the context pottery read at Isthmia over the years. This consists of pot sherds that aren’t special enough to be inventoried but can nevertheless be identified as from a particular class of vessel. The second dataset is the “lots” dataset. This is a list of lots – or stratigraphic units – excavated over the years at Isthmia. It’s hard to know whether it represents ALL the lots excavated or just some of them. Most of these lots also have locations (that is areas at the site) as well as trenches and many have been assigned dates. 

The other three data sets for my current experiment consist of inventoried pottery and lamps. Two are the Byzantine and Roman pottery deemed special enough to warrant formal cataloguing. Some of this material formed the basis for Jean Marty-Peppers 1979 Penn dissertation. There is also a database that lists the inventoried lamps which have recently been published by Birgitta Wohl. Part of the larger goal of my work is to make sure these datasets “talk” to the publications. More importantly, however, I worked to assign each of these 3000 or so artifacts to its appropriate lot (or stratigraphic context). This would ensure that these datasets could “talk to” the lots and context finds databases. This is work in progress because sometimes the lot isn’t very clear and I’ll have to dig into the notebooks at some point to make sure that these datasets talk to each other well as I can. 

I was able to kluge these datasets together with only a little bit of fuzziness between them (for example, some of the lamps come from deposits that may [or may not] be identified as lots). Some of our standardized vocabulary for artifacts (we have adapted a version of the chronotype naming system) isn’t quite tidied up yet as well. So there’s some more work to do.

I can however offer some very simply examples for how this work might be useful.

One of the first datasets that I wanted to explore involved our assemblage of Slavic pottery. Slavic pottery is a shorthand for hand or slow-wheel made cooking pots and beakers with geometric decorations. They may be associated with “Slavic” migrants to the Southern Balkans, but this remains a bit of an open question. Generally this material dates to the 7th or 8th centuries (or later).

We are now able to quantify our Slavic material in some mildly interesting ways. For example, we can now say that we have 132 contexts that contained some Slavic material. 28 of these contexts produced inventoried finds and the rest of the Slavic material came from context pottery. Slavic ware appeared in almost every context from across the site. Conventionally we’ve associated Slavic ware with depositions found in the area of the Roman bath, but, it turns out that a very narrow majority of Slavic sherds came from other locations around Isthmia (52.4%). We can also use the dates assigned to lots (based on?) to get a broad sense of the character of the contexts in which Slavic ware appears. 48% of it appears in Late Roman and Early Byzantine contexts (which appear to date from the 4th-8th century). 24% of it comes from later Medieval contexts (e.g. Middle and Late Byzantine contexts) and about 26% comes from mixed contexts. Of course, it is hardly surprising that most common location for Slavic pottery in in Early Byzantine and Late Roman contexts associated with the Roman Bath (29%), but the Early Byzantine and Late Roman as well as mixed deposits associated with the Northeast Gate produced not insignificant quantities of material. That over 20% of the Slavic material came from the Northeast Gate is interesting and I’m eager to dig a bit more into this.

It’s not a massive leap from this to a study of the larger assemblage associated with the Slavic material. Of course, for this to be meaningful, we also need to study the excavation context, but this is a future project. 

Working with Isthmia data has also allowed me to start to think about the distribution of material across the site in different ways. David Pettegrew and I have been thinking a bit about how we might compare the assemblages produced by excavation at Isthmia with those produced by the intensive pedestrian survey of the Eastern Korinthia. David has published the data from the latter which makes it a convenient dataset to explore.

For now, however, I was content to explore the data from the Isthmia datasets across the site. There are some provisos, of course. First, I have no real sense how complete this dataset it. On the one hand, I expect that if it is not complete, it is incomplete in an effectively random way. On the other hand, the dataset might be lacking non-stratified assemblages that might contain material from later or earlier periods. As a way to offset this, I decided, just as a little experiment to compare the distribution of common Roman fine wares at two areas of the site: The East Field and the Roman Bath.

The results are pretty boring, but could inspire some hypothesis building. For example, maybe it’s worth noting that the East Field and the Roman Bath produced roughly equal amounts of the long-lived and common African Red Slip ware (28%-30%), but the Bath produced more, later Phocean Red Slip (LRC) ware (16% to 3%). The East Field, in contrast, produced more Candarlı Ware (12%) than the Bath (8%). At first, I suspected that this was because the East Field less later material than the Bath which, if I recall, remained in use as an activity area later, but the Bath assemblage had a higher proportion of ESA/B wares (32% to 28%) which tend to have earlier Roman dates. Both areas produced a good bit of something called “Class H” pottery. In fact, it was the plurality of the assemblage from the East Field (34%) and consisted of 15% of the material from the Bath. I have no idea what this is and it is not mentioned in Jean Marty-Pepper’s dissertation or the recent Hayes and Slane volume of Roman pottery from Isthmia. In other words, its some kind of fine ware that is not included in the two most recent (if 1979 is indeed recent) and thorough catalogues of material from Isthmia, which is a bit odd.

As we continue to refine the data, it’ll become possible to perform other kinds of comparisons between material associated with various areas of the site sites. The kind of legacy data produced by Isthmia probably is not sufficiently robust to constitute “big data,” but my hope is that by slowly cleaning it up, it’ll help us at least make some new connections and pose some new questions.

Three Things Thursday: Campus, Corinthia, and Conferences

This week has become more hectic than I would have wished, but mostly it’s hectic with good things. I’m looking forward to heading to Fargo tomorrow for the Northern Great Plains History Conference and pleased that some of the work that I put into cleaning up data from the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia is almost far enough along to sustain some basic hypothesis building. These two things, and the changing face of my institutions campus will be the topic of today’s “three things Thursday.”

Thing the First

UND’s campus is really changing. Over the last three or four years, the university has implemented a new campus master plan, built a number of new buildings, created elevated walkways between existing buildings, and introduced new landscaping to the campus quad that turned several roads into pedestrian only zones.

For the last decade or so the old Medical School’s “Science Building” has housed my Department of History and American Indian Studies. This has been completely renovated with new conference rooms, offices, and classrooms. It’s pretty nice and while I liked my massive office carved out of lab space, my new office feels clean, compact, and contemporary.

It also has a glass door, which is a bit odd, and the hallway outside the office is access only through door controlled by key cards (at least outside normal building hours). The hallway also has a number of cameras. The bathroom has no doors.

I get that we live in a society where control, access, and surveillance have become synonymous with power. And I also understand that privacy is not a right, but a privilege reserved for those who can afford the necessary protocols, treatments, and tactics. And, finally, I get that control over the commons (and a public state university is a kind of commons) is necessary to avoid the abuse of its limited resources.

That said, I am still bit a put off by the level of control and surveillance that exists in our new building.

Thing the Second

I’m so, so, so close to having some of the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia data ready for some preliminary analysis. In fact, when I’m done a few odds and ends this morning, I plan to work on some of the last bits of data this morning. As I reported last week, most of what I’m doing at this stage is recoding information originally recorded on paper inventory cards and keyed to notebook pages to more standardized formats appropriate for digital databases and keyed to stratigraphic unit (which, in turn, can be connected to particular pages in the notebooks).

While I have some long term goals with this project — including preparing the data for publication — but in the short-term, I want to be able to do some basic analysis of our assemblages that allow us to hypothesis build. For example, it will be possible to analyze the material from various parts of Isthmia as one might analyze a survey assemblage. We’ve been doing this some with the data from Polis where we’ve been able to consider both the presence or absence of certain forms of fine and utility wares across the site. For Isthmia, the plan might be to pull together all the material from, say, the East Field or the Roman Bath and use it as a window into what classes of artifact are present in the region at various times and perhaps even in what proportion to other contemporary artifacts.

Of course, this won’t be the last word in our analysis of the material from Isthmia, but it should offer the first word and an opportunity to understand the character of the Isthmia assemblage in a more systematic, if also more superficial, way.

Thing the Third

If you’re planning on going to the Northern Great Plains History Conference this week, do consider stopping by my panel tomorrow morning. I’ll be talking about the state of North Dakota Quarterly in session 34: The State of State Journals: Past, Present, and Future with editors of South Dakota History, North Dakota History, and Minnesota History.

You can download a copy of the conference program here.

You can read a copy of what I plan to say here.

More Pseudoarchaeology

As readers of this blog know (perhaps too well), I’ve been slowly exploring the topic of pseudoarchaeology over the last couple of years (here and here are links to most recent posts). Recently, I’ve explored the concept of an anti-racist pseudoarchaeology that rejects narratives infused with white supremacy and colonialism and amplifies anti-colonial and Black voices. This is both a move to challenge dominant narratives that seek to white-wash pseudoarchaeology and to celebrate the long tradition of alternative archaeologies that mark out the intersection of indigenous knowledge, popular perspectives on the past, and disciplinary archaeology.

With this as a preamble, I was really thrilled this weekend to read the newest edition of Pauline Hopkins’s “Radium Age” science fiction, pseudoarchaeology classic Of One Blood. The introduction of Minister Faust is well worth the modest price of this edition from MIT Press. And I look forward to the usual suspects blogging, Tweeting, and dissecting this book!

The story is a familiar one. The main character, Reuel Briggs, is a Black man passing as white at Harvard Medical School. His deep sense of alienation and depression belied his brilliant medical studies which combined conventional medicine with spiritualism, the occult, and mesmerism. A miraculous intervention by Reuel’s saved the life of a beautiful young woman, Dianthe Lusk, with whom he falls in love and marries. Despite his growing fame of a doctor, Reuel’s lack of wealth led him to despair of his ability to support his young bride. Reuel’s wealthy friend, Aubrey Livingston, took an interest in both Briggs’s predicament and his new wife, and arranges a lucrative opportunity for Reuel to travel to Ethiopia as the doctor on an archaeological expedition.  

While in Ethiopia, Livingstone feigns his own and Dianthe’s death and sneaks off to his ancestral home in Maryland with her. At the same time, Reuel discovers the secret city of Telassar hidden among the ruins of ancient Meroe on the Nile. This hidden city has survived for thousands of years with only limited and deliberate contact with the outside world and had consequently escaped the depredations of colonialism and racism. In the city, Reuel find that he is, in fact, the city’s long-anticipated ruler and he ascends to the throne as King Ergamenes and marries the queen (appropriately named Candace). The advanced spiritualism and technology of Telassar, however, soon reveal to him that Dianthe is still alive and he leaves the city bent on saving her from his former friend’s clutches. Meanwhile, Dianthe meets with a former slave of the Livingston family who tells Dianthe that not only is she Reuel’s sister, but she is the half-sister of Aubrey Livingston. This discovery drives her to try to poison Aubrey while Reuel rushes to save her from the other side of the globe… 

The novel hits upon a number of key themes in pseudoarchaeology:

There’s a hidden city whose residents had both technological and spiritual powers that far exceeded contemporary society. While readers seem tempted to compare Telassar to Wakanda from the Black Panther comics (and films). Wakanda, however, is a more conventional resource state which draws upon its supply of vibranium (which itself derives from a meteorite) for both its technology and its citizens’ super human powers. Thus Wakanda follows a more conventional narrative that connects Wakanda’s ability to escape and resist colonization to its access to resources (and perhaps more nefariously, its connection to extraterrestrial power). In short, Wakanda’s independence is more like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than Telassar’s more mystical autonomy which stems from its ancient connections to the ancient wisdom of various African and Near Eastern people: the Chaldeans, Nubians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians. 

Conventional archaeological practices did not provide the expedition with access to the hidden city. Reuel discovered it quite by accident (or through the complicity of the political leaders of Telassar who abducted him as he wandered the ruins of Meroe). The expedition came to Meroe looking for treasure. The archaeologist (the professor!) learned of this treasure and the various traps that protected it from a map acquired from an individual with intense local knowledge rather than rigorous scientific prospecting or conventional academic knowledge. Thus Reuel’s appearance at the site relied upon both indigenous knowledge and a spiritual awareness derived from his royal bloodline.

Another thread common to Black pseudoarchaeology is Reuel’s ignorance of both his own royal bloodline and his family connections to Dianthe (and indeed Aubrey). The existence of a hidden city that had escaped the colonial conquest of Africa depends, in part, on the historical continuity (as well as the loss of family and ethnic ties) introduced by the Middle Passage and exacerbated by the inhumane disruptions to the family life of enslaved Blacks. In this context, pseudoarchaeology — in various forms — served as a way to reconstruct relationships between the global Black diaspora community and the African society. Reuel’s rediscovery of his royal blood (and his sister Dianthe) allowed him to resolve his own sense of alienation by reconnecting with both his family and his ethnic and political community in Africa.

The important role that spiritualism, mysticism, and occult practices played in Reuel’s reconnection with his African heritage and family finds parallels with both the turn of the century mysticism of individuals such as Edgar Cayce (whose works appear, for example, in Sun Ra’s library and) whose unorthodox interpretations of the Atlantis myth and the Sphinx contributed to his overtly racist theories of polygenism. At the same time, spiritual approaches to knowing the past appear across a wide range of modern indigenous and “popular” practices ranging from Angelos Tanagras’s parapsychology (and dream archaeology) in Greece, to the Ghost Dance among Native Americans, and the prophetic and messianic elements of Nation of Islam and Rastafarianism (and observation made my Minister Faust in his thought-provoking preface to the MIT version of Of One Blood).  

In this broader context, then, pseudoarchaeology demonstrated its capacity to undercut the colonial roots of disciplinary archaeological practices and connect alienated communities to meaningful pasts. As the cultural, scientific, and spiritual aspects of Telassar demonstrate, the power of pseudoarchaeological discoveries is that they disrupt arguments for the modern, linear expectations of social, political, economic, and cultural development. To be clear, I recognize that challenges to such developmental or (social) evolutionary models can sometimes be used by racists to demonstrate the implausibility of certain achievements or to imply the intervention of aliens or other non-human forces. The classic argument that aliens built the pyramids because Africans simply did not have the technology or sophistication to construct such monumental buildings is patently false and grounded in a view of African society as (racially) incapable of such achievements in the past. Moreover it suggests that the alien intervention which allowed Egyptian society “jump the queue” and to acquire technological sophistication without the social and cultural resources to support it, created a dangerously hybrid society doomed to instability and violence. Some critics have offered similar arguments in a more modern vein against the development of post-colonial societies in the Persian Gulf where oil accelerated economic development and allowed these states to “jump the queue” without the putative democratizing pressures of industrialization. Wakanda, after all, is a kingdom, even if its ruler is an enlightened super hero.   

At the same time, most archaeologists accept that various modern developmental models represent racist efforts to justify the superiority of white European civilization from the start. In this context, counter narratives constructed by Black and indigenous pseudoarchaeologists in the early 20th century represent a significant and influential gesture of resistance to colonial practices (including conventional archaeology). 

Lecture this Fall: Late Antiquity at Polis: Recent Research

I’m spinning my wheels a bit this fall and trying to get traction after a long and somewhat exhausting summer of research and other work. Fortunately, several projects have become a bit more insistent lately and some new projects have popped up to fill the void.

Among the projects that I have appeared from the ether to structure my semester is a talk that I was invited to give at the University of Cyprus’s Archaeological Research Unit.

Here’s the abstract that I submitted: 

Starting in 1984, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition excavated areas around the village of Polis-tis-Chrysochous in northwestern Cyprus. These excavations revealed a wide range of buildings and contexts dating from the Late Antique period including two Early Christian basilica style churches surrounded by various buildings that appear to stretch along the northern edge of the city. At some point in Late Antiquity, most of this area appears to have become a massive cemetery, presumably centered on the two churches. Recent research has revealed that the buildings along the northern edge of the city underwent continuous renovation and reconfiguration even as burials encroached.

Along with a few photos:

IMG 7550

South Basilica POT

IMG 3911

My current plan for the talk is to start the talk with a broad overview of Late Antique Polis and then focus on four or five issues that have emerged from our work. These issues will start with the most “settled” (and even published) and move onto some more speculative ideas about the city of Arsinoe in Late Antiquity.

1. Untangling Legacy Data. The first thing I’ll discuss is the challenges of working with “legacy data” at a project that flirted with the dawn of the digital age while still adhering to analogue practices. This will be a nice way to introduce the audience to the archaeological contexts for my paper’s analysis.

2. The Phases of the South Basilica. In some ways, this section will confirm that the methods we employed to combine legacy data with new analysis have the potential to produce meaningful results. It will largely summarize conclusions published a few years ago in Hesperia

3. Regionalism and Trade on Cyprus. This section will start to take our research into more speculative areas by demonstrative the value of publishing larger ceramic datasets and showing how they can contribute to understanding connectivity within a broader regional context. Some of our conclusions here have appeared in various publications, but they’re very much still tentative because of the changing chronologies associated with Late Roman ceramics in the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly.

4. Creating Some Late Roman Horizons. As a follow up to the last point, I will introduce our efforts to construct some Late Roman “horizons” at Polis that have the potential to be starting point for both refining ceramic chronologies on the island and proposing new dates for the transformation of the built environment on the island from the 6th to 8th centuries.

5. Fragments, Features, and Functions in the Late Roman Cityscape. Finally, the paper will conclude with some observations on how excavations along the northern edge of Late Antique Arsinoe revealed by the Princeton Cyprus Expedition can offer a fragmentary, but suggestive view of the changing character of the city. In this way, we hope that the work at our site can contribute to our emerging understanding of Late Roman urbanism elsewhere on Cyprus.  

 

The lecture will occur, I think, on November 28th and delivered via The Zooms, so I should, hopefully, have a link to share with people closer to the date. I’ll also share the text of my paper once I get around to putting words on the page. 

Three Things Thursday: Data, Books, Teaching

This semester feels very odd to me. Not only did I start the semester a bit more tired than I expected to be, but I also didn’t have a clear set of goals and deadline ahead of me. After I submitted my revised book manuscript at the end of August, my fall semester seemed oddly under scheduled. It’s taken me a while to recognize that this is probably a good thing and more of a feature than a bug at this point in my career. 

This sense of being under-committed this fall has given me the space to work on a number of other projects in a less frantic way than I have in the past and today’s Three Things Thursday is about that.

Thing the First

Earlier this week, I posted about my work with the Isthmia data and my effort to corral and clean up various datasets produced by the Isthmia excavations over the past 50 odd years. My primary goal has been to work on Roman and Post-Roman material from the excavation and to focus particularly on Byzantine and Roman pottery. Earlier in the week I finished recoding the inventoried Roman and the Byzantine pottery so that it can be integrated with the stratigraphic data and context material from the site.

Then I moved on the the lamps from the site, figuring that most of the lamps found in the Ohio State and Michigan State excavations at Isthmia were Roman and later. Fortunately, Birgitta Wohl has just published a volume analyzing the lamps from these excavations, but her substantial catalogue identifies the lamps according to the inventory number and the area where they were found, but not their stratigraphic context or even trench. This is annoying, but perhaps not too unusual. 

More vexing is that I don’t have a table that includes all the lamps in Wohl’s catalogue. Instead, I have a partial table that I excavated from an Access database whose creator and purpose is unknown and I’ve spent about four or five hours now transforming Birgitta’s catalogue into data. This, of course, is both absurd and a completely normal part of archaeology as early-20th century practices and late-20th century digital tools continue to find opportunities for incompatibility. 

Thing the Second

This summer, I spent a good bit of time fretting about the number of projects I had wending their way through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. In particular, I was worried about a collaboration that I had hatched with our sister project, North Dakota Quarterly. This project involved the publication of a translation of Jurij Koch’s novella, The Cherry Tree, which would be the second book in our emerging NDQ supplement series.

Cherry Tree Cover FINAL

Our current plan is to release this title on October 11th. In fact, we don’t even have a landin page for the book yet, but the translator convinced us to accelerate the timeline so he could take some copies with him to Croatia next week. Because my fall is under scheduled, we were able to make this happen and while the book has not officially dropped yet, you can, if you know where to look, find a copy from a major online retailer

Thing the Third

Finally, I continue to think about whether being under scheduled is a privilege or something that university faculty should aspire to, and this has started to impact how I teach. In some ways, the current “syllabus as contract” driven environment creates an expectation that the schedule on the syllabus represents an accurate summary of student work during a semester. Because faculty (and students) recognize that under representing the quantity of material creates problems with student expectations, we tend to over represent the amount of material (or at least represent the maximum amount of material) that we hope to cover in a semester. This tends to compound a sense among students (and even among faculty) of being over extended or scheduled “to the max.” 

This doesn’t feel very healthy to me.

Isthmia Data

This past summer, I started a small pilot project at the first site where I ever worked: the Panhellenic Sanctuary at Isthmia in the Corinthia. The project brings together some colleagues from my work on Cyprus – including Scott Moore – with some colleagues from the Bakken days – Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis – and my friend David Pettegew, who is an old Corinthia hand. 

Our main interest for this pilot project is some kind of publication of the Slavic pottery from Isthmia. This is material that my advisor Tim Gregory has been studying before his health had started to decline and a class of pottery of significance to folks looking to understand the 7th and 8th century in Greece. As readers of this blog know, the “long late antiquity” is a particular interest of mine both on Cyprus and in the northeastern Peloponnesus. Gregory published a preliminary study of the assemblage of Slavic pottery from Isthmia many years ago and more recently, John Hayes and Kathleen Slane has published Slavic pottery associated with some parts of the sanctuary at Isthmia in a new Isthmia volume. Our work on the Slavic pottery from the rest of the sanctuary aims to both complement and expand this existing work.

First thing, however, is always first and right after the pottery comes the data. Isthmia is a project that has material dating to 1950s excavations and they have long worked to make this data available in digital form. The ARCS project at Michigan State now provides a fairly complete digital collection of digital artifacts associated with Isthmia and this includes inventory cards for inventoried finds and scanned notebooks. Over a few seasons, the most recent being 2022, we also worked to excavate various datasets located at Isthmia and to produce various reports that sought to describe and understand these datasets and how they served to describe the material at Isthmia. This fall, I started to work on recoding, when necessary, and connecting these datasets in ways that will allow us to place various classes of pottery in their archaeological context.

The main challenge here is extracting context data from the inventory cards which will allow us to connect various inventoried artifacts to particular archaeological contexts (ideally, but not always, stratigraphic contexts). This will also allow us to connect the inventoried pottery to the “context pottery” from Isthmia which the ceramicist generally assigned to a particular stratigraphic or, at very least, excavated context. This, in turn, will allow us to produce more robust and comprehensive assemblages of material.

Historically, research at Isthmia proceeded from the notebooks where inventoried finds appeared in relation to particular archaeological contexts. A reader of a notebook could see the inventoried coins, pottery, lamps, architectural material and so on associated with a level and cross reference these with inventory cards organized by year and inventory number. This approach made it unnecessary to record inventoried material on the basis of “lot,” “basket,” or “box” (which are just Isthmia terms for stratigraphic or excavation context) because it was assumed that someone starting with the notebook would know the context for the object.

Being a survey archaeologist and in artifact level analysis, this approach to understanding the Isthmia ceramic assemblage was insufficient. In other words, I needed to recode the inventoried pottery so that I could more easily link it to context pottery and build assemblages from the artifact up (rather from the notebook down, if that metaphor makes sense). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we will ignore the information contained the notebooks, but it allows us to work both from the artifact side to the notebooks and from the notebooks to the artifact side with greater ease.

First, it’ll allow us to identify similar classes of material across the entire site and then work back to their respective contexts. Ideally, we can then query the notebooks to determine the character of the contexts where the artifacts appears. This would allow us to determine, for example, whether the material came from use, sealed, or secondary contexts. These context could, in turn, be situated in stratigraphic relationships to other levels and situations across the site.   

It will also allow us to locate inventoried artifacts in particular trenches (and even potentially levels) on the GIS maps that Jon Frey, Isthmia Director, is preparing.

This kind of fussy data work will also allow us to develop an assemblage that we can, in turn, compare to assemblages from Corinth and, more importantly, from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) as well as other published assemblages of material from the northeastern Peloponnesus.

Finally, it moves us a step closer to being able to publish the Isthmia material and notebooks online in a more formal and stable way, which will allow more scholars to access and interpret this important site and its artifacts, architecture, and history.

Pseudoarchaeology in an Age of Archaeologies

Yesterday, I posted a bit more on pseudoarchaeology and a number of commentators quietly mentioned that I may have lost the plot. I’m willing to accept that I’m not longer really talking about something that matters or is even real. In other words, my instinct to be counter intuitive has sometimes exceeded my instinct to make arguments that resonate with … common sense or people’s preferred view of the world. There’s a bit of an “ironist cage” situation going on, I’m afraid.

More to the point, I wonder whether my sometimes pained arguments for the tangled roots of pseudoarchaeology speak less to the contemporary situation among pseudoarchaeologists and more toward my general dissatisfaction with the term. To be clear, I don’t like pseudoarchaeology that advances implicitly (or explicitly) racists goals and while we can disagree with strategy (and even tactics or rhetoric) on how to challenge this, we’re on the same team.

What I think I’m the most uncomfortable with is the very concept of pseudoarchaeology. It seems to imply that there is a “real” archaeology which stands in stark contrast to fake or pseudoarchaeology.

Most of us know, however, that such a distinction is pretty superficial and archaeologist have applied the distinction between real and not real archaeology to approaches now accepted as nearly canonical. For example, Bill Rathje’s famous “Garbage Project” often saw criticism for not being “real archaeology” (and Rathje pushed back over the course of his long career). Early critics of indigenous archaeology for example have sometimes located it outside of the narrowly defined realm of “real archaeology.” Intensive survey, geophysical protection, and remote sensing have sometimes had to case build for being “real archaeology” as well.

The ngram plots are vaguely similar with discussions of  “real archaeology” in some ways anticipating the surge of interest in pseudoarchaeology. Without delving too deeply into the nitty-gritty of this conversation, this makes a certain amount of sense. Debates about what constituted “real archaeology” established a framework for what could exist within the largest tent that the discipline could sustain.   Archaeologists can (and perhaps even should) relegate as approaches, methods, and conclusions which exists outside of this evolving definition of “real archaeology” to the realm of pseudoarchaeology (or less commonly “fake archaeology”). This, of course, recognizes that as early as the 1970s, pseudoarchaeology had acquired its own definition which emphasized works that focused on ancient astronauts, European voyagers making their way to the Americas in Antiquity or the Middle Ages, parapsychological and mystical readings of ancient monuments and places, and a general view of the past as riven with mysteries that elude scientific approaches.   

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In light of these trends, it seems safe to say that pseudoarchaeology has earned a particular definition that is less literal and more associated with its historical application to particular kinds of archaeological arguments. In other words, archaeology is free to continue to expand and adopt new methods, embrace new voices and views, invite new perspectives on old problems and conjure new problems that require new approaches.

One thing that I can feel confident saying is that archaeology isn’t likely to expand so widely to accept explicitly racist approaches to the past. This isn’t to say that archaeology wasn’t racist or colonial in the past, but that the discipline is committed to being less racist and colonial in the future. 

As a result, I wonder whether we’re at the place where distinguishing between real- and pseudo- archaeology is less useful especially as we continue to recognize that the contemporary discipline represents “archaeologies” with a wide range of epistemologies, methods, technologies, approaches and so on and that we will continue to embrace an ever widening and deepening set of practices in the future. At the same time, we can easily admit that we reject racist approaches to understanding the past.

In fact, most of the critiques of pseudoarchaeology have less to do with its methods and arguments which are obviously difficult to align with modern scientific approaches to archaeology, but are not necessarily beyond the pale of the kinds of arguments that archaeology has the capacity to accept as valid in, say, an indigenous context. That Anastasios Orlandos believed that dreams could reveal the location of buried churches, for example, represents an indigenous tradition that integrates the Byzantine and Early Christian experiences of divine revelation with archaeological knowledge making.

The most compelling critiques of pseudoarchaeology are that it’s racist or used for racist purposes. We can all agree that this is not ok. So perhaps instead of fueling a pointless (and potentially racist) debate about what constitutes real- versus pseudoarchaeology, we instead invest in the simpler goal (and here I’m telling myself this, not necessarily my imaginary interlocutors) of combating racist archaeology in all its forms in the past and in the present.

This gives plenty of space for my exploration of Sun Ra, Afrocentrism, Afrofuturism, and various expressions of anti-modern archaeology and allows for others to pursue their quest to expose the deeply problematic goals of pseudoarchaeology. We can accept that not all ancient aliens are racist while also accepting that some, very much, are. 

Whitewashing Pseudoarchaeology

For those of you tired of reading my take on pseudoarchaeology, you maybe should sit this blog post out. There’s not much new here.

Another Flint Dibble twitter thread has prompted this post and I want to stress from the top that Flint is not wrong and his heart and his mind is in the right place. He is doing the best he can and clearly understands his audience of fellow travelers. My post today isn’t meant to criticize him or even the larger “myth buster” crowd who loves to go after pseudoarchaeology whenever it rears its fugly head on social media or on some or another cable TV network.

Instead, I want to offer another take on things (and this take doesn’t deviate much from my other takes (pdf), but to be fair neither does Flint’s nor his allies’). 

I’m increasingly concerned that the whitewashing of pseudoarchaeology by its critics poses certain risks. 

First, many of the most open critics of pseudoarchaeology associate this pseudodiscipline with guys like Erich von Däniken and various cable TV celebrities who offer variations on the same argument: we don’t understand everything about the past and that leaves open the door to the possibility that … it was aliens.   These aliens did everything from build monumental architecture to position themselves as gods or introduce science and technology that exceeds what we have today. It doesn’t really matter whether there are simpler or better or more scientifical explanations for the “mysteries” that pseudoarchaeologists pose. What matters is that their sensational solutions seem to tie together various purportedly loose threads and offer an alternative explanation to the past. It also matters that “real archaeologists hate these guys” which contributes to the credibility of pseudoarchaeology especially among folks who are skeptical of academics and other supposed experts. This is obviously only the tip of the iceberg, though, and there’s a thriving cottage industry on the web for various theories 

Folks inclined to challenge pseudoarchaeologists tend to pick their arguments apart, demonstrate how mysterious situations aren’t very mysterious, and offer more plausible alternatives to ancient aliens or whatever. The best combatants in the war against pseudoarchaeology go a step further and demonstrate how many pseudoarchaeologists grounded their arguments in assumptions that ancient folks – especially those in Africa, Meso-America, and the Middle East – couldn’t build impressive monuments or develop impressive tools and technologies on their own. The implication here being that these communities and societies were simply too primitive prior to the arrival of advanced Europeans (and colonialism). Locally, artifacts such as the Kensington Runestone (which attracted the attention of Theodore Blegen of the famous, archaeologically inclined Blegen clan. For the record, Theodore Blegen considered the runestone a modern forgery) continue to bolster false claims of Viking exploration and even settlement in Minnesota as a counter weight to Native American claims.     

These assumptions and arguments, no matter how strained or systematically debunked, make pseudoarchaeology appealing to white supremacists and others who favor historical narratives that promote European superiority. If there is a front that has real value in the pseudoarchaeology wars, it is this front, and Dibble and the “myth buster” crowd has done important work to make visible the link between certain contemporary strands of pseudoarchaeology and far right political ideologues. 

Unfortunately, this is also where things get complicated. There seems to be this assumption that because white supremacists appreciate and have even developed pseudoarchaeology now, pseudoarchaeology itself is racist or has its origins in racist ways of seeing the world. To make this argument effectively, archaeologists in the pseudoarchaeology wars tend to whitewash pseudoarchaeology by emphasizing its white, European practitioners (especially its roots in Nazism), and this coincides well what we see on TV and the popularity of von Däniken’s best selling books. There is no doubt that today pseudoarchaeology can represent a gateway drug for disaffected individuals who are skeptical of experts, the academy, and broader trends in society.

The only problem is that this whitewashing, as most whitewashing, isn’t entirely true. In fact, pseudoarchaeology has roots that go much deeper than the mid-20th century and stretch far wider than Nazism, obscure Swiss writers, cable TV hosts, and disturbing corners of the contemporary web. In fact, pseudoarchaeology has roots in the 19th century where visions of the Wheel of Ezekiel, to use an example explored by Michael Lieb, found powerful purchase in Black American spirituality. While 19th century ecstatic visionaries didn’t assume the wheel to be ancient aliens, the mystical and supernatural power of this vision resonated well into the 20th century where it may have influenced Sun Ra’s abduction narrative, Elijah Muhammed’s notion of the Mother Plane or Mother Wheel, as well as some of von Daniken’s alien visitors. It would seem that visions of alien visitors are not simply a white thing.

Overlooking these influential narratives (and I promised myself that I would not go on about Sun Ra in this post), is part of a larger pattern of whitewashing the rise of interest in pseudoarchaeology which is often seen as part of the growing popularity of the far right political movements. 

It is rare, for example, to see archaeologists connect the growing interest in pseudoarchaeology with the resurgence of interest in Afrofuturism, of example. In many ways, the emancipatory potential of the Black Panther’s Wakanda or the remarkable Afrofuturist narratives spun by Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany  challenge the traditional view of history and archaeology. On the one hand, it is easy to overlook the narratives embodied in this work as fiction, but, on the other hand, stories like the Black Panther leverage narrative strategies with clear parallel to those present in pseudoarchaeology: there is a mysterious country, in Africa, that somehow escaped notice from not only colonial powers in their rush to empire, but also generations of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists!! Once again, white European archaeologists miss what must have been right before their eyes. More importantly, these works complicate traditional narratives of progress upon which certain forms of archaeological thinking rest, by positing technologically, socially, and materially advanced pasts and futures.  

In the hands of Black authors, pseudoarchaeology in both fiction and non-fiction works, supported anti-colonial and anti-racist narratives. It bolstered problematic, but nevertheless important narratives associated with Afrocentrism and contributed to new forms of spirituality and religion that adapted older practices and beliefs to the modern age. Pseudoarchaeology is powerful (and potentially dangerous) because it subverts academic knowledge, narratives of progress, and associated claims to authority. In the hands of Black authors, pseudoarchaeology, Afrocentrism, and Afrofuturism became weapons of the weak. Pseudoarchaeology appeared in popular literature, was celebrated in popular music, and circulated in served urban communities where it had the capacity to create countercultural spaces that challenged the knowledge of experts and institutions to which few Blacks had ready access. 

Reciting this argument is tedious (and I do it more length elsewhere), but important.

It is important because it reminds us to take pseudoarchaeology seriously as a subversive narrative. Flint and the “myth busters” get this right and the threat of subverting the institutional power of “real” archaeology 

It is important because it reminds us that pseudoarchaeology, despite being used by white supremacist, is not exclusive to white people. In fact, I would argue that it didn’t develop exclusively in a white context. In other words, white supremacists are using a narrative with roots in Black traditions. To my mind, this is a powerful fuck you to white supremacists..

It is important, then, to remain attentive and critical of narratives and arguments that seek to whitewash pseudoarchaeology. The tendency to whitewash pseudoarchaeology appears to be effectively parallel to the tendency to whitewash archaeology in general. It remains only too common to exclude, to marginalize, to “other,” and to ignore non-white narratives whether rooted in popular knowledge, pseudoarchaeology, or indigenous perspectives on the past. 

Finally, it is important to work to elevate these perspectives to greater prominence in discussions of pseudoarchaeology and to temper our tendency to see the subversive potential of pseudoarchaeology as a threat to institutional archaeology, “science,” or the established narratives. This means being aware that archaeologists have a long tradition of using practices like “myth busting” (under its various guises) and “science” to suppress diverse ways of viewing the past as well as the communities that hold them. To be clear, no one is shedding a tear for the “it’s aliens” guy or white supremacists, but pseudoarchaeology is not simple and there are wheels within wheels (Ezekiel 1:16).

Repatriation at UND

This week has been a very difficult one for my Native American colleagues and students. The University of North Dakota announced that they had begun the repatriation process on a collection of artifacts and ancestors discovered over the last six months on campus. I’ve been a small part of this process and I’ve been overwhelmed by the experience and especially the courage and commitment of my Native American colleagues and their friends and allies in the state and on campus.

If you’re interested in what is going on at UND, here is a link to the university’s resources on the process.

Here is a link to the statement issued by Governor Doug Burgum and and Indian Affairs Commissioner Nathan Davis. 

Here is some media cover from the usual suspects and the major Native American media at ICT

Here’s a link to Sonya Atalay’s, Jen Shannon’s, and John Swogger’s thoughtful NAGPRA Comics which do a decent job explaining the NAGPRA process.

I hope that the community manages to do three things as they come to process this information. First, they recognize that our Native American colleagues, students, and friends need time to grieve, process, and understand the situation disclosed this week.

Second, they give the NAGPRA committee on campus room to work and recognize that this is the first step in a complex and painful process. This is not just work of UND or “the institution,” but a committee of white and Native American faculty and staff (and our colleagues across the state) who are doing the best they can to navigate this situation in a respectful and deliberate way. 

Finally, that they hold the institution, its leaders, and the committee accountable for what they’ve promised and they see this not just as a problem to be solved (through processes, laws, and “best practices”), but an opportunity to forge closer ties with Native American communities and work to undo centuries of overt and structural (and institutional) racism on our campus. 

As a white dude (and an archaeologist), I’m always the last to figure shit out. What I witnessed this week (and over the last several months), though, accelerated the learning process for me (even though I know that it shouldn’t have taken the incredible trauma and courage this situation revealed to do this). I hope my friends and colleagues – both in archaeology and in the UND community – hold me accountable as I continue to develop as a scholar, teacher, and person.