Writing Week: Chapter 1 Archaeology of the Contemporary World

For those of you who don’t know what this is, go and read this blog post. My typical blog is on hiatus this week as I work to catch up on some writing.

Enjoy the fragments and fruits of my labor all week, fresh from the tips of my fingers:


One of the nagging questions behind our work on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition was whether this constituted “real archaeology.” There were reasons for doubt. A documentary film company had arranged to excavate the landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico to verify an urban legend which claimed that a struggling Atari Company dumped hundreds of thousands of returned, unsold, and otherwise compromised products into the Atari landfill. From the start, the project was not directly driven by professional archaeologists. In fact, a gifted amateur archaeology and garbagologist, Joe Lewandowski, identified the most likely location for the excavation and coordinated the logistics for the dig.

The object of this work did not fit neatly into existing categories of archaeological artifact. An Atari game cartridge was not over 50 years old, particular unusual, rare, or even culturally significant according to traditional archaeological criteria. The role of the game in an urban legend of corporate hubris and decline seems more fitting for a documentary than the work for serious archaeology.

We had only minimal influence over how the excavation was carried out. Richard Rothaus’s early arrival at the dig site gave him access to the work of bucket auguring (and the location of a least a few augur holes) that identified the most likely place to excavate for the games. A massive excavator dug the trench which revealed the games and the instability of the landfill itself and the documentary film crew’s desire to preserve an element of surprise limited access to the immediate vicinity of the excavation. Despite limited access, the excavation revealed a predictably simple depositional history that hardly warranted archaeological attention in its own right.

Finally, once excavation discovered and removed the artifacts, we had only limited access to the material. In fact, our interest in documenting the assemblage was a far lower priority than the needs of the documentary film crew to get footage and the various city officials in preparing an inventory of the finds for their eventual sale. While we did manage to document the deposit where the games were found, it was hardly at the level of archaeological scrutiny that one might find in either a traditional excavation or over the course of the late Bill Rathje’s Garbage Project excavations. We did make recommends to city officials and set aside some games to be sent to museums, but we do not know whether the city followed through on our recommendations.

As at least one participant in the project noted, the documentary filmmakers regarded the archaeologists as props to validate their claims rather than as active participants in the work of excavation, documentation, and artifact recovery. At the same time, our status as props gave us access to a unique excavation and allowed us to observe and document a project that sat at the intersection of several key issues relevant to recent interest in the archaeological engagement of the contemporary world.

The Archaeology of Trash 

Archaeologists have always been interested in trash. In fact, some scholars have recognized that some of the earliest archaeological work focused on trash. Dietmar Schmidt, for example, argues that preeminent German anthropologist Rudolf Virchow’s accidental discovery of rubbish pits in Berlin represented a crucial moment in the understanding of archaeology as both a practice and metaphor for modern social science (Schmidt 2001). In the late 1860s, Virchow thought he had discovered the remains of an Iron Age pile dwelling in the middle of the modern city, but soon realized that the deposit of bones, shells, and kitchen pots was discarded rubbish from the previous century. Despite his disappointment, he documented the deposits carefully and presented a number of papers arguing that this deposit of 18th century kitchen waste revealed a good bit about the culinary habits of the German aristocracy and their predilection for oysters and mussels in particular. When Virchow goes on later in the century to visit Heinrich Schleimann’s dig at Troy he comments on the discarded refuse. Moreover, Virchow’s work led to periodic investigations of modern sewers and other nearly contemporary refuse deposits elsewhere in Europe. Schmidt suggests that Virchow’s and others’ interest in the mundane trash rather than simply the glorious inspired Freud’s use of the archaeological metaphor to characterize his exploration of the human consciousness.

Even without such grandiose claims, excavators have invariably recognized the value of middens, rubbish pits, and other deposits of discarded objects. These deposits speak to both the material assemblages associated with every day life as well as discard practices and attitudes toward what is valuable and what is not. Bill Rathje in the early 1970s recognized the value of applying archaeological attention to discard practices and garbage to the modern world (Rathje 1992). Rathje’s work focused initially on contemporary household trash from the city of Tuscon, Arizona. The trash was sorted carefully by volunteers and recorded to present a profile of consumption and discard practices for a cross section of an American city. By the end of the project Rathje had expanded his work to excavating and taking cores from landfills, and this work linked the life of a single household to the more complex system of waste management.

Rathje’s Garbage Project spurred a growing interest in the nature of trash in modern society. Michael Tompson’s Rubbish Theory (Thompson 1979) offered a theoretical point of departure for the movement of objects from houseful use and value to rubbish and, at times, their return to value. Thompson argued that objects circulate through various economic, social, and cultural contexts which assign or rob the object of value. Contemporary scholars might dispute Thompson’s tendency to separate an object from an external context and prefer to understand objects in a network or web of relationships with other things, people, and ideas, but his idea that objects have little in the way of intrinsic or material value allows us to use the study of trash a venue for the larger study of society as a dynamic force.

More recent work on our interaction with trash continues to make visible the complex way in which we engage with discard as a practice and discarded objects as thing.

Unprecedented Blog Hiatus

My first month back from sabbatical has been full of bad habits. I’m reading more than I’m writing. I’m using daily tasks (email, reading for class, blogging, grading, service, tilting at windmills) to hide from long term projects. And, while I’ve taken steps to keep my stress level manageable, I’ve slowly felt the icy tendrils of stress creeping into my day-to-day life.

So, I’m going to take a week off from regular blogging, and focus my morning “therapy writing” on a book project that I’m involved in relating to the Atari dig in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I’m not sure that we can meet a very ambitious writing deadline, but I’m going to let my writing for this project take over the blog for the next week.

Here is what I need to write about:

1. Archaeology of the Contemporary World (4000 words). Was the Atari dig archaeology? Is this even a relevant question? This is the way to reflect on a big picture view of archaeology of the contemporary world. 

2. Digging the Modern: A CRM Perspective (4000 words). The challenges associated with dealing with modern sites. The challenges of dealing with the landfill. 

3. Technical Report on Excavations (8000 words). This has been drafted. It’s a technical description of what we documented during the excavation.

4. Between Artifacts and Commodities (4000 words). I’d like to think through more thoroughly the issue of whether it was ethical to sell the Atari games on auction and reflect on how archaeology of the contemporary world creates a new, hyper abundant class of artifacts. I’ve penned some vague ideas here.

5. Excavating Innocence (4000). I’d like to riff on Laurie Wilkie’s remarkable book: The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) when considering the larger meaning of excavating an urban legend in Alamogordo. I played with some of the ideas in relation to the Zak Penn documentary here

Obviously, I’m not going to be able to write all of this in one week, but if I can chip away at some of these ideas this week during my designated blogging time, then maybe I can keep the dreaded “business” at bay.

So I apologize to my regular readers who may find this entire Atari Excavation business a bit tedious, and promise that I have other things to blog about when I get some of this Atari book on the page.

Media Archaeology and Archaeology of Media

Last week I kept going back to the most recent volume of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology to read just one more contribution before getting back to work. I couldn’t help myself. The volume pairs scholars of contemporary archaeology, with an interest in the archaeology of the media, which media archaeologists, who are typically scholars who interrogate both older forms of media (from film to video games) and the devices upon which these media depend (from celluloid to 8-tracks and theremins).

Traditionally, both sides have sought to disabuse any confusion with the other.Media archaeologists have explained their use of the term “archaeology” as an appeal to Foucault’s concept as first explored in his Archaeology of Knowledge. Archaeologists of the media have traditionally explained their work as focused on the documentation of media and related devices in archaeological contexts whether through excavation, survey, or intensive documentation of built spaces. The former tends to emerge along the margins of English departments and Communication programs; the latter on the fringes of archaeology, anthropology, and history departments.

From my perspective, there are three main things that I got out of this collection:

1. Convergence. This is an old and hackneyed media studies term, but it is perhaps applicable to the intermingling of issues central to media archaeology and traditional archaeology. Some of this has to do with the increased dependence of traditional archaeology on digital media and the need to regularly consider the impact of new technologies on our basic field practices, the state of embodied archaeological knowledge, and our responsibilities to archive and preserve records of our work. Our of necessity, archaeologists have become media aware and even traditional practices like drawing, notebook recording, and photography have seen increased critical scrutiny as practices embedded within particular social and political (broadly construed) contexts. 

It is probably too soon to see all archaeology as media archaeology, but any project that has digitized its notebooks, prepared or maintained a database, or changed recording media or practices in the field has flirted with the edges of this emerging field of study.

2. Assemblage. Rodney Harrison has argued (pdf) that the dominant metaphor for archaeology has shifted from excavation – pulling away layers to reveal the past – to assemblage – tracing the relationships between all kinds of objects and agents to understand the complex formation of past knowledge. Media archaeology can draw heavily on Foucault’s understanding of discourse and his rejection of context (there is nothing outside of the discourse). For traditional excavation practices, context refers to the geological strata in which artifacts exist. As archaeologists have become more committed to privileging the assemblage as the basic unit of archaeological analysis, they have increasingly recognized that landscapes, stratigraphy, artifacts, archaeological practice, and even archaeological media function as a interdependent and interrelated body of objects to produce knowledge about the past. None of these aspects of archaeological knowledge production exist outside the analytical process of archaeology.

It is perhaps not a coincidence, of course, that the rise in intensive pedestrian survey as a respects and widely deployed method for constructing past landscapes is particular committed to the assemblage as the unit of analysis.

3. The contemporary world. As with so many current (productive and otherwise) theoretical complications, the point of origin for this convergence of media archaeology and archaeology of the media is in the archaeology of the contemporary world. In fact, the archaeology of the contemporary world and prehistoric archaeology appear right now to be the major engines for changing archaeological methods as well as the destruction of disciplinary boundaries. These sub-fields have cultivated the growing interest in agency, assemblage, and materials which have positioned archaeology as more than simply a useful set of tools for understanding the past and located the discipline as an immediately useful way to approaching material culture in every day life. 

As I have noted on this blog, the expanded understanding of agency that recognizes the deeply embedded set of relationships that shape our actions include both human and non-human agents. This speaks both to our growing sense of powerlessness in the world and the growing recognition that technologies increasingly serve to mediate,  shape, and limit human interaction. As we interact regularly with a growing web of objects and media, the boundary between responsibility (and, to use a political watchword, accountability) and agency becomes increasingly blurred. While this does not mean to suggest that people in earlier times did not encounter a similarly entangled existence in their engagement with objects and non-human agents, I would contend that the positing of a post-human world is something that is more obvious in contemporary society. The need to engage with a range of both proximate and distant materials, objects, and agents has made more clear that agency alone is not what makes us human.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Andrew Reinhard has a contribution on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition in this volume. With each passing publication his ability to tell the story of the Atari Expedition becomes more refined and interesting. Go and check it out.

A Brief Contribution to Archaeogaming: Zombie Games

This last month has been pretty fun.

I’ve been thinking a bit about object biographies, reading for a multibook review, and, believe it or not, still thinking about the Alamogordo Atari Expedition.

While these things rattled around in my brain, I got to pondering the life history of the Atari games. As the final tally on the money raised by auctioning the excavated Atari games has made the news over the past couple weeks, I wondered how these games fit into the metaphor of object biography. Object biography imagines that objects, like people, have life histories. They are born, they live fruitful, agentative, and complex lives, and then, like all life, they die.

Archaeologists then exhume these objects and they begin second lives in museums, collections, or storerooms. Some classes of objects, say, prestige goods accustomed to elite consumption continue to live on as important objects, displayed in museums or in private collections. Of course, many more objects don’t quite return to life entirely. More mundane objects do not re-integrate with our practical needs and are doomed to linger on in a kind of limbo between being alive and meaningful and occupying carefully curated discard as part of the storage crisis in archaeology.

The Atari games generally fit into the latter category. In life, they might confer some momentary prestige – like a recognizable bottle of an expensive wine calls out the importance of the more temporary product within – but generally the game itself was a short-lived commodity. More than that, the game itself was hardly an artifact at all; it was lines of code embedded on a chip.  

Did the game die when it was discarded? This would seem to fit a narrative that saw the Alamogordo landfill as a graveyard.

These exhumed games, however, had an extraordinary afterlife. Like many archaeological artifacts, did not stay dead. They returned to life as zombie games (at best) or relics (at worst). The final scene of Shaun of the Dead comes to mind here, where Nick Frost’s zombie character Ed continues a life not too unlike his life before his zombification, chained up in a backyard shed playing video games.

It may be that the better metaphor for the excavated Atari games is as relics. Their place in urban legend, in gaming history, and, now, in an internet fueled media frenzy, bestows supernatural powers on these objects. They might no longer function as games, but continue to possess power as fragments of a particular past. In fact, one might even think of the narrative involving their discovery as the modern equivalent of an inventio story. In Medieval literature, inventio tales tell of the miraculous discovery of lost relics and affirm the sacred power of these objects. These tales often become fused to the objects themselves and history of these objects becomes inseparable from the narrative of their discovery.

Whether zombie or relic, the game itself – the cartridge, the silicon, the paper label – are all similar enough to serve their purpose as representatives of an experience (playing the game), an era (the glory days of Atari), or an event (the excavation of the games).

Of course, reflections on the death (and rebirth) of the Atari game does push us to ask questions about the original birth of the Atari game. (Here’s I’ll channel my inner Andrew Reinhard): Was the game born when the coder, the famous Howard Scott Warshaw, created the code that made particular pixels respond to our commands on the screen. Was the game born when this code was imprinted on a silicon chip, or this chip was embedded in a plastic case, labeled with a graphic label, or placed in a box? Was it born when the game arrived at the point-of-sale, entered circulation, or was plugged into an Atari console?

But the life of an Atari game is more complex. Before these discarded games “died,” they were cloned digitally. (In fact, we could argue that these games originated as clones of the code that Warshaw composed and the plastic cases and graphic art that Atari designed.) The life of these games bifurcated, however, as the code itself lived on to appear in java-based emulations on the interwebs or in other forms ported to newer technology. This is not to suggest that the code was immutable and that every instance of the code was identical to the one before. Every time a piece of code is run, it runs a bit differently (mostly on a level that’s imperceptible to the end user), and as code outlives the hardware on which it was designed to run, it picks up artifacts of efforts to keep it alive.

The plastic, silicon, and paper bits of the games may appear to have a more linear trajectory. Unlike vintage video game cabinets (which our collaborator Raiford Guins explored in the life-history equivalent of retirement and nursing homes) which get restored and refinished and enjoyed as long as outdated parts can be found to keep them going, plastic game cases, paper labels, and chipped and battered silicon rarely see such care. Conservation is possible on these games, but for those excavated from the Alamogordo dump, the dirt, cracks, and torn paper forms a history of their posthumous burial. Preservation of these objects as Atari relics or zombies requires attending to evidence for their discard, decay, and exhumation. So like the cloned code that lives on in new, different circumstances, the exhumed games carry forward the history of their afterlife in very physical ways.

The history of a complex, manufactured, object like an Atari game – no matter what its history – reveals the limitations of the notion of life history for an object. Pinpointing the moment of birth and death are impossible when objects have the meandering, reduplicated, and intermittent existences like those of these Atari games. Many archaeological artifacts die, are born again, and are cloned over the course of their history.

Of course, most archaeological objects live this kind of diffuse existence. They exist simultaneously as physical artifacts and as database objects, as illustrations, and photographs. These objects – clones, copies or whatever – go on to live complex “lives” as they appear in print, online, and linger on hard drives, web servers, and tapes. Without their relationship to excavated objects they can lose value quickly and without the proper tools to view, collate, and preserve them, they can all but vanish. Excavated artifacts can likewise vanish into the darkness of private collections, the abyss of the pottery dump, or the tray of “context pottery.”  Mundane commodities like Atari games can vanish into landfills and only a infected few become zombie games and return to haunt the world of the living.


Fragments of a Conclusion

This past week, I’ve been twisting and tweaking an article documenting our work at the Alamogordo Atari Excavation. The article was primarily authored by Andrew Reinhard and represents a formal, (we hope) publishable report on our work over a few days in Alamogordo at what was probably the most publicized excavation of 2014. 

Here’s a fragment of my revised conclusion. Since I’m not sure whether it’ll appear in the article, I’m posting it here with very little comment:

(Also this is what happens when you try to write during a field season):

Atari Archaeology Conclusions

Archaeology of the contemporary world has often relied on special pleading to justify its practices, methods, and relevance. The excavation of Atari games in the Alamogordo desert is no exception to this tendency. The hyper-abundance of modern material has led to challenges in managing and documenting artifacts. The potentially toxic character of assemblages extracted from landfills, disaster sites, and industrial contexts require specialized handling skills that are rarely possessed by archaeologists and rules and regulations that may not be suited to traditional forms of archaeological investigation. As a result, the documentation of modern period assemblages often requires special accommodations. In the New Mexico desert, we were not able to enter the trench, manually excavate, or handle large quantities of material for extended periods.

As in both contract and academic archaeology, time represents a key limiting factor in the methods employed in the field. Generally speaking, ethical responsibilities serve as a counterweight to time pressures with archaeologists seeking to collect as much information as time pressures will allow. In the archaeology of the contemporary would, however, our ethical obligations are complicated by the uncertain status of material present in the Alamogordo landfill. If this material is genuinely archaeological, it is only because we documented it according to archaeological field procedures. According to most standards in our discipline and common sense, household and corporate discard do not and should not automatically command the levels of ethical care as objects and contexts of greater antiquity. Many of the challenges facing archaeologists of the contemporary world go well beyond procedures established to ensure the careful documentation of fragile or scarce archaeological resources.

Finally, the Atari excavations presented a unique opportunity for archaeologists to inform, document, and, in subtle ways, subvert the narrative produced by a media company. The goal of this report was to provide a more typical professionalized narrative of the Atari excavation. The documentary film, Atari: Game Over featured only about 10 minutes of footage on the excavation itself. This article expands and reframes these scenes with additional information collected through our participation in the production. While the story we tell does not contradict that told in the documentary, it does reveal that the halting flow of information between the production team and archaeologist limited genuine collaboration during the hectic two days of field work. At the same time, the production company supported various requests by the archaeologist that did not contribute directly to their production goals. We were able to cross the safety cordon to document the excavator’s progress, were given space to document buckets of trash from the landfill, and given brief time to sort and study the Atari cartridges. These opportunities made this article possible and demonstrate that potential of collaboration between media companies and archaeologists moving forward.

Articulating Atari

This week, Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, and I met for a day to discuss a publication plan for the Atari Excavation project. While we all agreed that there is enough intellectual substance from this experience to warrant an edited volume, we also thought that the best way forward was to produce a traditional archaeological report which could provide a basic description of our work and an introduction to the challenges that we faced working on a rather unusual salvage excavation.

The main point of this article, it seems to me, is that the archaeology of the contemporary world represents an awkward challenge to traditional archaeological methods and methodologies. As a result, it provides us with a chance to explore the border between real and “fake” archaeology and consider practices and questions that frame authentic archaeological engagements with the world.

1. Excavation. As an academic archaeologist, I’m used to being very involved in the excavation process. While it is not uncommon for a project to use a bulldozer to remove the top levels of sediment or surface debris from a site, generally we break ground, by hand, starting with the plow zone. At the Atari dig, all of the excavation was done by a huge excavator. Making matters worse, the landfill was remarkably unstable making it dangerous the approach the sides of the trench and impossible to enter the trench. This made first hand observation of the stratigraphy difficult.

2. Stratigraphy. Fortunately, the stratigraphy of the site was rather simple. The excavated area was a trench cut into the desert which was then filled with a three levels of trash and two levels of soil. The levels were very obvious from the material in the excavator’s bucket and in the scarp when it was possible to approach and photograph the trench.

The deposit reflected 5 distinct depositional events with the earliest being the deposit of Atari games spread across the lowest level of the trench. Subsequent deposits involved two dumps of household trash both covered with top soil. Unlike excavations of pre-modern sites, our stratigraphic observations could be confirmed by first hand observation of the deposits themselves. The previous operator of the landfill confirmed the levels of trash and topsoil and photographs existed for the dump of Atari games.

3. Artifacts. The goal of our dig was to confirm the presence of the Atari deposit and to sample the content of this deposit. We were aware from the start that the games would attract interest from collectors and museums. In fact, members of the team had contact with museums prior to the start of excavation and we prepared collections for the city of Alamogordo, which owned the games, for distribution to cultural institutions with an eye toward preserving representative and meaningful assemblages.

At the same time, we knew that the city and the local historical society would sells some of the games on Ebay to raise money for the community and to offset costs of storing and inventorying the games. We caught some flack in social media circles for participating in a project where we knew that some of the artifacts collected would be sold. To be honest, I’m still a bit ambivalent about this, but only because considering the role of “real” archaeology in fortifying the market of excavated objects is tricky business when the artifacts do not qualify under any existing law as protected. You can buy a used Atari game on Ebay without – as far as I am concerned – ethical compromise. Moreover, objects of greater significance and older vintage discovered in other archaeological contexts – from farmer’s fields to suburban garages – regularly circulate in the market without much protest from the archaeological community. As an archaeology of the contemporary world develops over time, archaeologists who participate in this kind of research must come to a more clear understanding of how their work influences the market for the goods that they study. As for the Atari Excavation, I’ll stand by my earlier argument that the games gained value as much because of the media frenzy around the documentary film as our work as archaeologists.    

4. Time, Toxicity, and the Media. Our time at the site was extremely limited and in this way our work paralleled the experience of salvage archaeology projects that operate in conjunction with contractors working on a deadline. Likewise, the media company had budgetary limits and deadlines. Moreover, landfills are toxic and opening a landfill involves a certain amount of environmental risks. As a result, it is never wise to leave a landfill open for longer than necessary. These variable constrained our access to the site and the scope of the excavation.

During our time in the field, these limits were frustrating. We would have liked to have greater access to the trench, to material removed from the trench (other than the games), and have witnessed a more deliberate pace of excavation. After reflecting more, however, I am not as convinced that a slower pace or more extended time on site would have produced more knowledge. The limited complexity of the stratigraphy, the instability of the trench itself, and the very clear goals of the excavation would not have rewarded a significant greater time (and risks) spent with the trench open.

5. Authenticity. The issues summarized in the points above play a key role in determining whether our engagement with this project had archaeological authenticity. All archaeology involves compromises dictated by the environment, political, social, and economic circumstances, and research questions, but archaeologists tend to instinctively recognize authentic archaeological research. The growing interest in archaeology of the contemporary world, however, complicates this as archaeologists have come to recognize all contexts as potentially archaeological and all artifacts as potential objects of study. The abundance of contexts and material encountered in every day life requires both tremendously flexible methods as well as a willingness to filter objects and practices that do not advance a clear research question.

In some ways, archaeology of the contemporary world has the potential to sketch out the limits of archaeological practice and disciplinary knowledge. I’ve received some negative reaction from archaeologists to both the North Dakota Man Camp Project and the Atari excavation. While some of it is typical disciplinary sniping, other critiques at least feel more substantial and complex. Our hope with this article is to attempt to respond and to anticipate some of the critique of what remains a very new approach to archaeology. 

Weeks of Wonder

If you’re a big Bill Caraher fan (and if you read this blog then I’m assuming that you find me vaguely amusing or, at very least, share some of my interests), then there is plenty to keep you entertained this week.

Tomorrow, as you probably know, is the 7th annual Cyprus Research Fund lecture. It’ll feature Andrew Reinhard, Raiford Guins, Richard Rothaus, and Bret Weber and we’ll talk about the excavation of Atari games in Alamogordo, New Mexico last year, have a viewing of the documentary Atari: Game Over, and discuss the archaeology of the contemporary western United States more broadly. Festivities start at 3:30 with some vintage Atari games set up to be played. To get an idea of the kind of thing that’ll likely come up check out Andrew’s blog, Raiford’s blog (especially note his time spent as a research fellow at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester!), and Richard’s blog.

If you can’t make it to the event, do not fear! You can watch the documentary for free here (or get it on The Netflix) and then watch our round table event starting around 5 pm for free on our live stream here.

For a preview of our discussions check out the most recent Caraheard podcasts here.

If you can’t make the Cyprus Research Fund lecture, maybe you can hang out with some of the North Dakota Man Camp Project in Ellendale next weekend?

The great folks with the Man Camp Dialogues, The Institute for Heritage Renewal, and The Ellendale Historic Opera House, and the North Dakota Humanities Council sponsored our event on Friday. If the last opportunity to present our work in a free-flowing dialogue is any indication, this will be a rewarding evening for everyone involved.

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If you’re not that into the archaeology of the contemporary world and aren’t based in North Dakota (which I suppose is possible), you can check out a different version of my dog-and-pony show at the Mary Jaharis Center at the Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts on April 18th where I will attend their annual Graduate Student Conference on Byzantine Studies and participate on a panel with some real luminaries in our field to discuss Byzantium in the Public Sphere. I’ve already blogged a bit about this last week.

So, if I’m a bit scarce on the ole blog here for the next couple days, I hope you’ll understand! 

Adventures in Podcasting: Caraheard Season 1, Episode 7

Or “History Will Be Heard, But via Archaeology of the Recent Past, Not Your Study of the Oppressed Black-Haired Irishmen with Excessively Large Canine Teeth.”

This weeks podcast is early and short, because we are super-excited about some audio and podcasting we will be doing from the 7th Annual Cyprus Lecture and North Dakota Premiere of Atari: Game Over.  If you can’t make the premiere in Grand Forks on 9 April, you can watch the documentary on XBox Video, or Netflix.    Atari: Game Over  has an IMDB rating of 7.2 from 368 (!) users, and you can watch a video review of the video by two dudes here.   

Listen to the Cyprus Research Fund Lecture Live HERE. And be sure to celebrate our sponsors: The Cyprus Research Fund, The College of Arts and Sciences, and The North Dakota Humanities Council.


AtariGameOver share2

But, first, Bill and Richard discuss historians who have become concerned that they have lost their public, and how public activities and outreach, like a crazed dig in Alamogordo, NM might address that issue.  We also discuss whether the Archaeology of the Recent Past is an outreach gimmick, or whether it is something that is helping the science of archaeology grow.  For our jumping off point, we discuss/attack/mock a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Thomas Bender, How Historians Lost Their Public.

Bill makes the case that specialized studies full of technical language are appropriate, and that calls to be less-specialized can be condescending, and lead to dumbing down the discipline. He points out that specialization is good in cancer doctors, but somehow bad in historians, and that makes no sense. Being accessible doesn’t produce new knowledge, Bill notes, technical and specialized writing does. Richard sort of agrees, but argues that there is plenty of room and opportunity for historians to break out of their uber-specialized cubbyholes if they want, and if they don’t want, they shouldn’t complain. The public aren’t crying out for more historians to engage them, as they have so much to watch and read from other sources, says Richard. Rather an insecurity within historical communities generates these cries. Bill notes that there is also real push back from funding agencies about outreach, and that is cause for concern. We seem to end up agreeing that there is a need and room for general practitioners of history and specialists in history, and perhaps there is no crisis at all.  Bill, however, suggests that he sometimes expects people to pay attention to him, while Richard is resigned to never being heard.

Richard admits that he started working on the archaeology of the contemporary world because he thought it would be easy (for outreach and students), but he has since been converted to thinking that it actual has significant contributions to the field. Bill discusses ways archaeology of the recent past has been done and applied to actually make the world a better place right now, especially studies of trash. Bill questions whether outreach via the recent past is useful, or is it so bizarre, like digging up Atari cartridges, that it is just a novelty and actually diminishing rather than enhancing dialogue with the public. Richard and Bill discuss how such projects can wind up with other professionals not taking the work seriously.  Richard talks about some work that has been done on the archaeology of fraternities, and how the The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi is so very relevant right now. Richard claims that winners try to solve problems through outreach rather than trying to be a policy wonk. Bill talks about how non-exotic archaeology can be effective help produce responsible citizens. We digress into a brief discussion of the potential iconography and archaeology of UND Fighting S___x Ice Dragons (?) logos and paraphernalia.  We close by referencing Andrew Reinhard’s bleeding-edge venture into Archaeogaming.


The Links to things we talk about:

That obscure website where you can buy HISTORY books – Amazon.com.

Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (for FREE).

Stacy Camp’s Teaching With Trash: Archaeological Insights on University Waste Management.

Rathje and Murray, Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage.

Here is some coverage of the director of the NEH calling for that agency to become more focused on humanities for the public good

Laurie Wilkie, The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: A Historical Archæology of Masculinity at a University Fraternity.(Be sure to enjoy the hilariously nitpicky Amazon review, from (surprise!) a member of the fraternity from 50 years ago).

National Science Foundation grants being questioned, as covered by scientists and a non-scientist.

Get your no longer Fighting S____x, not yet Ice Dragons (?) UND wear and paraphenalia at the Sioux Shop.

A handy bibliography of Contemporary Archaeology.

Black-Haired Irishmen – quit being racist.

Big Canine Teeth –  really, quit being racist.

Andrew Reinhard’s IMDB Page.

Archer, Atari, and Tourism

This weekend gave me the last little break before the race to end of my sabbatical. So I took a bit of time to try to understand what I’m doing with my academic life. In particular, I tried to figure out why I’ve been so fascinated with the Atari excavation, tourism, and the T.V. series Archer. What brought these three things together?

Reading parts of Marita Struken’s Tourists of History this weekend helped bring my research into greater focus. She considered the relationship between kitsch and tourism, arguing that both have a way of simplifying the complexities of the world and promoting a kind of innocent detachment. Kitsch often evokes the simple pleasures of childhood and frequently emerges at moments of trauma as a kind of social therapy that restores the world to recognizable order. Sturken’s work, for example, examines the appearance of kitsch in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and contemplates the innocence of a Twin Towers snow globe purchased from vendors serving tourists at Ground Zero in New York. 

The ritual of visiting a site of trauma as a tourist provides the modern visitor with a way to organize, apprehend, and ultimately control the power of the traumatic event. Viewing the Bakken, for example, rationalizes the oil patch in a way that allows for action and allows the visitor to experience the rhythm and reality of extractive industries in a way that photography, video, and media coverage leaves open ended. In fact, tourism has tended to emphasize authenticity of experience as a way to transcend the limitations of a world shaped by media and seemingly outside our reality. The immersive character of tourism makes it real.

As numerous scholars have noted, all tourism is a form of industrial tourism. So tourism of industrial sites – like the Bakken – make the connection between our industrial world and the sites of industrial production explicit. Driving on a busy Bakken highway with trucks, equipment, and workers engaged in the extraction of oil from deep beneath the earth makes clear the link between tourism and industry, but framing this encounter as tourism allows the visitor to the Bakken to realize this as a form of authentic experience comprehensible as part of a larger view of the region and its activity. In short, by understanding the inconvenience, danger, and processes at play as a tourist, the Bakken becomes part of a shared world that allows the tourist to tame and organize reality by subjecting it to modern criteria of experience.

The resurgent fascination with Atari games in the 21st century represents an effort by a middle age population to reclaim their childhood innocence. As I noted in my review of Zak Penn’s Atari: Game Over documentary, the excavation of Atari games from an abandoned landfill is like so many archaeology of the contemporary world projects in that it endeavors to systematize our past experiences. Like the modern encounter of tourism, archaeology of the contemporary world renders the recent past understandable. By recreating and reordering our experiences it allows us to manage the trauma of the past, evokes a lost innocence, and bringing the complexity of a uncertain world into order by appealing to archaeology’s claim to authenticity (and authentic knowledge). In the case of Penn’s documentary, this process is couched in explicitly Freudian terms. Digging into our own past (and the past of Howard Scott Warshaw, the developer of the E.T. Atari game), we discover parts of our primordial childhood and makes our past and our present seem normal, under control, and safe. Our childhood experiences are valid and linger just below the overburdened and neurotic world of the adulthood.

Finally, this brings us to Archer. I’ve started watching the first four or five season of the T.V. show called Archer. I think it probably dances the line between being a legitimate hit and having a cult following. The 30-minute, animated  TV show centers on the antics of Archer, a secret agent for the free-lance intelligence firm called ISIS run by his overbearing mother. Archer is a handsome former college lacrosse player who drinks, parties, and shoots his way out of innumerable jams. While at times crass, cavalier, and irresponsible, Archer is perpetually innocent. He lacks any clear moral compass (unlike his beautiful and perpetually conflicted ex-girlfriend Lana), but also lacks any clear guile. He is honest and literal to a fault. In fact, he represents the American middle and upper-class male as the perpetual innocent. Archer is the same person who remains fascinated with Atari and, as the show’s frequently flashbacks make clear, continues to struggle to overcome and understand his own emotionally empty childhood.

Archer resonates with a generation of American males who are looking for a way to stay innocent in a world that seems impossibly complex. Tourism, nostalgia for our kitsch-inflected childhood, and a TV show staring a child-man who always makes the right decisions because he is capable of any moral reasoning, all reflect strategies to organize our past and our present in a comprehensible, authentic, and un-ironic way.  

For more on this check out my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch and come and see a showing of Atari: Game Over with a panel discussion and vintage Atari games starting at 3:30 on Thursday at the Gorecki Center on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota.

AtariGameOver share2

The Soon and the Summer

I bought by tickets to Greece for next summer and I need to buy my tickets from Athens to Cyprus this week. After a year away from my work on Cyprus to focus on the Western Argolid Regional Project in Greece, I’m going to return to Polis-Chrysochous for a three-week study season starting May 5. Then heading to Greece for almost two months on May 25th or 26th. This all means that planning for the summer has to start now.

First, the next few weeks will prove to be busy, but exciting.

On April 8th-11th, I’ll host Andrew Reinhard and Richard Rothaus on campus for a public showing of the documentary, Atari: Game Over, and an academic round-table on the archaeology of gaming and the contemporary world.

On April 7th, I take a quick trip to Fargo for a dissertation defense. 

On April 18th, I’ll be in at the Mary Jaharis Center in Brookline, MA to participate in a roundtable on “Byzantium in the Public Sphere” and somehow simultaneously at a Man Camp Dialogue presentation in Ellendale.      

Over the same stretch of time, I need to put the finishing touches on two sabbatical projects. One is the final round of revisions on the North Dakota Man Camp Project paper for Historical Archaeology, and the other is a book proposal for the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch, which is become a more and more compelling project every passing week. The book proposal is virtually done and I have a meaningful draft of the manuscript in hand. Now all I need to make is a few final touches and pull the trigger. I’m also doing the final revisions on an article for Internet Archaeology on archeological blogging.

At the same time, I’ve been trying to put together the kit of necessary summer gear that has to be ordered and sorted out before the start of May.

1. New Laptop. My three year old 15-inch Dell XPS has finally become unusable thanks to a combination of Windows 8 and some kind of nagging hardware issues. So I have to order a quad-core Dell Precision 15-inch today with 16-gb of ram. 3D image processing takes a tremendous amount of power.

2. New GPS unit. My trusty, 10 year old Garmin Gecko was stolen from my 12-year-old truck this past fall. We used Garmin Oregon 650s this past summer in Greece because we could upload aerial photographs to them and they had 8-megapixel cameras. In turns out that the cameras were not particularly useful and drained the battery. So this summer, I’ll purchase a Garmin 600 which is the same unit without a camera.

3. Camera. I love my Panasonic GX1, but the camera will be going on its third field season and has enjoyed such exotic opportunities as being used in a landfill in a dust storm, being lugged up every elevation in the Western Argolid without a lens cap, and several trips to the froze tundra of North Dakota. My hope is that it survives this summer, but I bought a fall back camera, a Canon ELPH135, which is discontinued and sells for less than $90 on Amazon. It’s nowhere near as good as the Panasonic, but it’s small, cheap, and good enough for a backup camera.

4. Microphone. With my career as a podcaster slowly gaining momentum, I need a small, decent USB microphone. Suggestions? For our podcasts, I’ve used a Blue Yeti, but this is a heavy microphone and I need to save some weight for, you know, three months of clothing.

5. Music. Living away from home for this long of a time is hard on me for a range of reasons (wife, dog, house, other responsibilities), but part of the thing that makes it hard is that I go from being alone most of the time to being surrounding by people most of the time. My escape is listening to music. To facilitate this, I have seriously upgraded my mobile music kit. First, I got a pair of new Audeze EL-8, closed back headphones and a little bird has hinted that I’ll get a new ALO Rx MK3 B+ amplifier which appears to be getting phased out of the ALO line-up and is now available at steeply discounted prices from their warehouse page. The amp is probably overkill for the EL-8s, but I suspect even in single-ended mode (balanced cables are not yet available for the EL-8s) it’ll provide a bit more oomph for the relatively efficient EL-8s as well as the option to move to a balanced set up in the future. 

6. Books. Usually I make a request for summer reading recommendations, but this summer, it looks like the American Journal of Archaeology has that all sorted out for me. I’m going to be working on a review article featuring several new books on the archaeology of the contemporary world and the growing interest in materiality among archaeologists. That being said, I’ll need to track down a few recreational books to read this summer, preferably with spaceships in them.